Friday, July 29, 2011

Is The City Council Anti-Education? Short Answer: No

Posted By on Fri, Jul 29, 2011 at 11:24 AM

Some people think the current Memphis City Council is anti-Memphis City Schools, maybe even the most anti-MCS ever. I disagree. Here are six reasons why.

Disclaimer: There is a human tendency to say someone is “best” “worst” “smart” or “idiotic” depending on whether they agree with you. This is especially true of the City Council. But whether the council is MCS-friendly or MCS-unfriendly is subject to fairly objective measurements.

Reason One: MCS likes to play the victim — victim of the media, the county, David Pickler, Mark Norris, poverty, you name it. Now it’s the council’s turn to take the rap. Same song, different verse.

Reason Two: This council includes two current public school teachers, Ed Ford and Bill Morrison. A third member, Wanda Halbert, is a former school board member and parent of children in MCS. In a perfect world, more elected officials would have children in MCS, but in the real world in 2011 thousands of people of good will send their kids to county, private, and charter schools. Other councils have had a cadre of retired MCS teachers and administrators but I believe this is the first time two current teachers have been members.

Reason Three: The good old days were not that good. Willie Herenton has told reporters many times that he had to fight for every dollar from the city council when he was superintendent and Wyeth Chandler was mayor from 1979-1982. Quoting from a 1980 article in Memphis magazine by Larry Conley, “The trouble began with the city council’s decision to lower the percentage of the property tax received by the public schools. Herenton charged that ‘the administration’ had influenced that decision. Chandler denied the charge, and that’s when the fireworks started.” After 1982, superintendent Herenton had plenty of critics on the majority-white council, notably Jimmy Moore. As mayor, Herenton enjoyed a growing economy and expanding tax base via annexation for the most part, and school funding increased, even after enrollment began to decline. Even so, former mayor Dick Hackett told me after he left office that Herenton had a much tougher council to deal with than he did.

Reason Four: The numbers don’t lie. As former councilman John Vergos likes to point out, ten years ago, the city and schools operating budgets were about the same. This year the city budget is $661 million and the MCS budget, likely to be approved Tuesday, is $884 million. The total MCS budget is about $1.2 billion. This council has delivered some $171 million in operating funds to MCS since 2008.

Reason Five: True, the council is likely to cut MCS funding from $78 million to $68 million this year due to a decline in enrollment of 2,508 students. The council is within its rights to do that. City employees, remember, are looking at a 4.6 percent pay cut. “Maintenance of effort” funding increases when enrollment is falling gives MCS administrators no incentive to right-size the system by closing underused schools and reining in spending. And despite more “reforms” than I can count, test scores system-wide have not greatly improved, notably the composite 17 on the ACT, which cannot be faked. Honest numbers, provided in open and timely fashion, are the starting point for good government. MCS officials wisely and responsibly provided them last week. The worst thing a school system can do is give in to the temptation to bury the news, massage numbers or fake them outright as some school officials and teachers in Atlanta did.

Reason Six: Surrendering the MCS charter was not the city council’s idea. The council supported the MCS charter surrender once the county school system leadership and the General Assembly made their intentions clear. Threatening to delay the start of schools was not the council's idea either. The consolidation story has played out of over the last eight months. It has been The Big Story in local news for most of that time. The Big Issue was, take your pick, civil rights, equal opportunity, sustainability, fairness, unity, saving the city, Big Bad David Pickler, Big Bad Mark Norris, or Big Bad Suburbia. At no time before last week was anyone saying that the Big Issue was the payment schedule for a portion of the funding from the Memphis City Council.

I think the current council is pretty good relative to others I have watched since 1982. It is generally younger and more engaged and open-minded and the economy is terrible. Some of their predecessors going back 30 years had more savvy but also more conflicts, and some were actuarially dead. The people who bash this council are often people who never come to council meetings or talk to the members informally or attend their lonely town hall meetings. Memphis looks a lot different from Orange Mound or Hickory Hill or North Memphis than it does from Shady Grove or Chickasaw Gardens.

In 2008 the council made a big bet and lost in an attempt to get out of the schools business. Consolidation was Plan B. This reckoning was coming one way or the other. Once Judge Hardy Mays makes his ruling, Memphis and Shelby County will have some very hard sledding.

I don’t know if Kriner Cash fits into the long-term picture or not. Superintendents often split after about three years when the hard truth is unavoidable and the school closings have to be made. Cash and Mayor A C Wharton may have broken the cup so it can’t be put back together. Cash has as much chance of winning a popularity contest with Wharton as he does of beating Shane Battier in a game of one-on-one. But he has helped raise a lot of new money for MCS, and he has three years experience now, so if he wants to hang in there, then so be it. But I wonder. Consolidation was a bad move, by his lights. Is his heart in it?

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