Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lincolnesque Compromises

Schools-merger backers Hart and Jones should make it happen now.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 1:50 PM

Maybe the members of the not very Unified Shelby County School Board or the Memphis and Shelby County School Board or whatever they're calling it these days should go see the movie Lincoln this week instead of muddling through another meeting.

Some of them, notably Memphis school board holdovers Tomeka Hart and Martavius Jones, could use a lesson in the art of compromise. The unified system, via surrender of the MCS charter, is their baby. They need to own up and raise it.

A merger is a marriage, and marriage is about compromise, especially if you're the one who proposed. But Jones wants to call the shots, because MCS was the bigger system. And Hart wants to delay the merger until 2014. They should have thought of this when they surrendered the MCS charter in 2010.

Now we have a superintendent search that has not even started, a $145 million budget gap, five school closings instead of the recommended 21, and the ever-present threat of municipal school systems. In brief, a mess. U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays could take matters into his own hands and appoint a special master to make the merger happen before the start of school in August. There was a mention of a special master in the judge's 2011 order, but nobody knows exactly what this means or how it would play out. Would the "master" have godlike powers to order school closings or name a new superintedent? Override the school board? Fire people? Add or subtract programs?

It didn't have to come to this. Jones and Hart could have accepted the recommendations of the Transition Planning Commission, of which Jones was a member. They could have led, but they fled.

"I told the TPC I didn't think this was going to work because we were relying on consultants as opposed to the expertise of the city and county schools," Jones told me in an interview this week.

He thinks John Aitken, leader of the 100th-largest school system in the country, would be "a great maintenance superintendent" but is unfit to lead a "reformist board" weighted toward Memphis.

"I don't think it would have been a stretch for the administrators of the 22nd-largest school district in the country [Memphis] to handle this," he said in an affirmation that is laughable to the suburbs and some Memphians.

He liked Hart's idea of postponing the merger a year to see what the state legislature does.

"I don't see the wisdom of bringing the systems together for one year," he said.

And he doubts the TPC recommendations would pass the unified board even if he supported them. If he really believes that, then he is seriously shortchanging himself.

The merger of the school systems would not have happened without the determination and persuasive skills of Jones and Hart. (Hart, now working for Teach For America, canceled an interview.)

The charter surrender was a fluke. The vote was 5-4, with lame-duck member Sharon Webb voting with the "ayes." Superintendent Kriner Cash literally begged the board to vote no. The referendum that ratified the charter surrender excluded suburban voters and included no cost figures. Supporters could project whatever favorable outcome they wanted to on it, from the dollars and cents of lower Memphis property taxes to the warm fuzzy ideal of unification and free pre-kindergarten.

The 23-member unified board has 16 lame-duck members whose terms end later this year, when the Shelby County Commission can expand the board from seven to 13 members.

"My intention is to be appointed to the expanded board," Jones said.

That is his right, but duty is calling pretty loudly right now. Jones and Hart should finish what they started.

If the goal is to push the suburbs out of a unified system and into some sort of Nashville-enabled municipal school districts, force a court-ordered resolution that will drive white people out of the unified system in numbers not seen since the 1970s, and create a merged system with the demographics of the old Memphis school system but a bigger footprint, then insisting that MCS dictate the terms of the merger is the way to do it.

On the other hand, if the goal is a unified system that includes majority-white suburbs, a very capable superintendent who is already on the job and under contract for another year, and single-source funding from Shelby County government, then Lincolnesque compromises will be needed.

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