Finals Prep 

It's a year of limbo for the Unified School System.

Yes, it's back-to-school time, and those teachers who survived a recent pruning of their ranks, no matter their brilliance, would be hard put to unravel a state of confusion which is bound to prevail in the minds of those — students, parents, fellow teachers, administrators, and just plain citizens — who will be interacting, one way or another, with the new unified Shelby County public school system.

The certainties regarding the new system are few, but one of them is that the system — in its current form, anyhow — is foredoomed to expire after a single year in existence. Two events have occurred this week that underscore the imminent and quite predictable dissolution of the system. One was the fact that Shelby County's six suburban municipalities, fresh from voting (for the second year in a row) to create their own independent school systems, raced to pass ordinances enabling the next step — the election of their own school boards in November.

That means that, unless they run into further snags — legal, bureaucratic, or the financial ones predicted by outgoing Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz — they will have opted out of the "unified" system by this time next year. No one has dwelled on it overmuch, but, when that happens, the problems associated with the de-merger, including the reshuffling of both students and teachers, may come to dwarf those which have bedeviled the much-plagued merger process.

Between now and then, there will be efforts by all parties to resolve several other unanswered questions, two of which loom foremost: How (if at all) and at what cost (if any) will the new suburban school systems acquire the use of existing school buildings, currently the property of the unified system? And who gets the students in the unincorporated areas of Shelby County, each of whom will bring state money into the receiving system, on a per capita basis?

Meanwhile, during the same week that municipalities prepared the way to elect their school boards, the Shelby County Commission ran afoul of various complications in deciding how to go about filling a single vacancy on the board of the unified system. (See Politics, p. 12.) That's not even to mention the forthcoming legal wrangles over just who should be represented on the unified board when that board, as planned, expands from seven to 13 members this fall. It will be remembered that when the old Shelby County system, representing only those areas outside the city of Memphis, switched in the 1990s from an appointed to an elected board, the courts decided that only suburban voters should vote for board members. How will that precedent come into play a year from now, assuming a 13-member system is, in fact, created?

The headmaster who gets to resolve all this is, as always before in this merger process, presiding federal judge Hardy Mays, who will have to remember everything he ever learned in school — not just the legal stuff, but the math, the sociology, and the political science that are bound to underlie the ultimate solution. We wish him well in all his run-up tests and in the final exam itself, whenever and however that comes.

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