Friday, January 31, 2003

Do Something!

Herenton hears a call to action and senses this is the moment for change.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 31, 2003 at 4:00 AM

In his book about the making of the modern Middle East, Six Days of War, Michael Oren records a Jewish leader's devastating putdown of the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban: "He doesn't live in reality; he never gives the right solution, only the right speech."

So, to localize that, what about our own seemingly unsolvable problem of public schools? Suddenly, it seems that everyone wants a solution, and they want it now.

The order of the day is DO SOMETHING.

Enough Memphis Board of Education meetings that last six hours, as the one Monday night did. Enough $575,000 studies and blueprints for action. Enough task forces and special committees on education. Enough on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand editorials and reports. Enough legal opinions and polls of public opinion. Enough report cards with the same glum news. Enough of the city and county mayors not being on the same page. Enough portable classrooms at crowded suburban schools.

The immediate cause of all this urgency is two schools that could not be more atypical of the Memphis and Shelby County public schools. One is a proposed new high school in Arlington, a municipality in northeast Shelby County where it is a good bet that 90 percent of the citizens of Memphis have never set foot. The other is an expansion of Houston High School, which has by far the highest family income in the county.

The political leadership of Shelby County is determined to start building those schools this year and to do it without raising an additional $3 for city schools for every $1 it spends at Arlington and Houston.

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton is determined that this "piecemeal" solution will not happen without fundamental changes in city/county school funding and organization. If he can't tie the city's problem school system to the county's crowded school system at this critical time, then he will have to hear people say for the rest of his administration that yes, Memphis and Mayor Herenton have done some good things but they didn't do anything about the bad schools.

"There is enormous waste of valuable resources within the board of education," he told Shelby County state lawmakers at a meeting at the University of Memphis Tuesday. At the same time, he said, "Achievement levels are getting worse. We're spending more, but our children are not getting an increase in their academic performance."

Herenton has rarely seemed so determined. For all his reputation as a fighter, his three terms as mayor have been marked mainly by compromises and patience on the schools issue. He kept quiet during the tenure of his successor, Gerry House. He gave her successor, Johnny Watson, two years and installed his finance director, Roland McElrath, as Watson's assistant. He compromised with former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout on Cordova High School and the Grey's Creek Sewer extension which opened up development east of Cordova. He gave the leaders of the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce three years to try to work something out in both public and private meetings.

Now he sees county leaders and suburban mayors trying to piece together a solution to their debt problem without addressing the underlying issue of two governments and two school systems.

One way or another, Herenton is determined to force the issue and make the city schools the county's problem. The opinion poll showing support for an appointed school board that was released Tuesday was supposed to turn up the pressure, even if polls are often wrong.

"Let the people vote!" Herenton told lawmakers, the media, and several county and suburban officials attending the meeting.

The people, of course, already have the right to vote for an elected school board, thanks to some hard work by state lawmakers some 10 years ago. In a referendum, people would in effect be voting to give up the right to vote.

"The appointed school board is just not going to happen," said Rep. Ulysses Jones after Herenton made his remarks.

Alternately, Herenton believes the city school board could dissolve itself and achieve a unified school system that way. But some board members are not inclined to bump themselves off.

Michael Hooks Jr., chairman of the MCS board, said he would only support a unified school system if it was part of a unified city and county government.

"A lot of what's going on is left over from his administration as superintendent but he wants to point the finger at the board of education," Hooks said. "We're getting distracted. Let's focus on the 64 low-performing schools."

Herenton's unified school system would lower property taxes in the city of Memphis by 86 cents and raise them 51 cents in the county, for a net savings for city taxpayers of 35 cents. No county elected official has endorsed it.

If the county wants new schools, Herenton has said, let them pay for them.

He is through giving the right speech and is ready for a solution to what he sees as the biggest blot on his own record as mayor and the city's image. If he has to take on his old rivals, the suburban mayors, and his old friend, county mayor A C Wharton, in the process, he gives the impression that he will do that.

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