Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Eating Our Own Cooking

On having a stake in schools, pools, and public transit.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 18, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Several years ago, when my children were pre-teens, swimming was the be-all and end-all of summer activities. It was not unusual for them to spend several hours a day at a nearby swimming pool where we had a membership. Then, one year, disaster struck. The pool was closed for construction and major repairs. Our daily routine was shot.

We scrambled for alternatives. Fortunately, that was one of the years the Mud Island River Park opened the "Gulf of Mexico" as a swimming pool. In a city full of Mud Island detractors, we quickly became Mud Island fans. Likewise, we discovered pools at Shelby Forest, Maywood Beach in Mississippi, and Scenic Hills in Frayser and saw those places in a different, kinder light. The now-disparaged mini-van was, that summer, the Perfect Motor Vehicle. And, of course, any neighbor who opened their backyard pool to us was a candidate for sainthood.

It is sad and scandalous that the Memphis Park Commission has closed its public pools since the two drownings on opening day. Sad for the victims and their families, sad for thousands of other kids with nothing to do, and scandalous that there is no hue and cry to reopen the pools with better safety and staffing. Legal concerns aside, if the pool users were not mainly poor and black, that would not be the case.

Our opinions of public services and the intensity of those opinions change when we do or don't use those services on a regular basis. This is especially true of public schools. Some of the harshest critics — as well as some of the most hypocritical defenders — of Memphis City Schools have no first-hand experience with them. One of the things that gives the school board credibility and makes it hard to dissolve is that two members, Jeff Warren and Stephanie Gatewood, have children in MCS, and the majority of their colleagues are either graduates and/or parents or grandparents of former MCS students. The same goes for City Council members Ed Ford Jr. and Bill Morrison, who are teachers. Morrison's school, Southwind Middle School, is in the county system, but it feeds Southwind High School, which is supposed to become a city school. His perspective is valuable.

On the other hand, nothing is more grating than hearing someone pontificate about MCS when you know they are talking about other people's children. All Shelby County residents have a stake in MCS, but customers and employees have the biggest stake.

The investigations of corruption in Memphis City Schools are focused on food-service and transportation contracts. Many of the middle-class kids who go to MCS don't eat in the cafeteria or ride the school bus. So the inefficiency and corruption are tolerated, and the denunciations are indignantly righteous. I don't agree with interim superintendent Dan Ward that MCS is the best school system in the country, but I like his style.

The rising price of gasoline to $4 a gallon may cause a similar shift in our thinking about Memphis Area Transit Authority and public transportation, although I think the tipping point is probably closer to $6 or even $7 a gallon, or whatever it takes before politicians and journalists start riding the bus.

Part of the appeal of men such as FedEx founder Fred Smith and Virginia senator (and author) James Webb as actual or potential public servants is their military careers as Marine platoon leaders in Vietnam. They have been under fire in a way that most of their fellow CEOs and senators have not.

There are a couple of areas where most of us Memphians eat the same cooking. One is property taxes. One reason why members of the City Council were willing to cut school funding to lower the tax rate is that in their districts homeowners who vote probably outnumber public school parents who vote. The other is crime. On Monday night I attended a community meeting in Whitehaven hosted by District 3 city councilman Harold Collins. Items on the agenda were supposed to include crime, school funding, and police residency requirements. About 35 people showed up. The meeting lasted an hour and 15 minutes. Every single question was about crime.

I asked Collins, a freshman council member who voted along with nine others to cut school funds, if he had heard much from his constituents. All but one of his phone calls, he said, have come from residents of District 5, which includes Grahamwood, White Station, and Snowden optional schools.

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