The Status Quo 

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It is almost forgotten now, in the Sturm und Drang of the imminent March 8th citywide referendum on the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter — and the de facto merger of MCS and Shelby County Schools which a positive vote would produce. But the current crisis — which now involves the several branches of state and local government — supposedly began with SCS board chairman David Pickler's post-election boast that now was the time for the county schools to pursue legislative action on behalf of special-school-district status.

Since the onset of the crisis, it has become fairly obvious that a number of the parties involved — including MCS superintendent Kriner Cash, SCS superintendent John Aitken, and possibly Mark Norris, the GOP's majority leader in the state Senate — would actually prefer to return to the status quo which prevailed before the current showdown got under way. To wit: the side-by-side co-existence of two separate schools systems.

Should a merger of the two systems occur as a result of the referendum, the amalgamation that would occur might, at least in its beginnings, resemble an attempt to combine an apple with an orange. SCS, for better or for worse, is a fairly bare-bones system, with minimal administrative overhead and relying on more or less traditional curricula and teaching methods. MCS, on the other hand, is — again, for better or for worse — more complicated administratively and is pursuing a number of overlapping teaching methods, some of them considered innovative enough to have interested the Gates Foundation into bestowing a $90 million grant to further their progress.

A successful union of the two systems might occur all the same, especially with the several organs of local and state government now actively involved in seeing a transition through to a positive conclusion.

But, as noted, there are those who are uneasy about the uncertainties and pine for the status quo. It is likely, for example, that Norris' bill — which provides for an alternative referendum involving both city and county, to be conducted only after a significant delay and the intercession of a joint planning board — is designed not, as many merger advocates believe, to facilitate some treachery whereby a special-school-district bill could be introduced on behalf of the county under cover of the delay.

More likely, the senator hopes that if things are sufficiently prolonged and weighed down with enough conditions, clauses, and considerations, both the merger prospect and that of a special school district will finally just go away.

In the minds of county advocates, the aforesaid status quo is one which the two systems, both funded by Shelby County government (with MCS getting a court-compelled bonus from Memphis city government), go about their previous business as if nothing had meanwhile happened.

But cityside advocates see things differently. To them, the status quo is all of that, plus the vital ingredient missing from the Norris bill and all other alternatives put forth by suburban sources: the continued ability of Memphis voters to decide, if authorized to do so at some future point by another vote of the MCS board, to utilize existing law and start the process all over again. It is a matter, as they see it, not just of fail-safe and the right to vote but of sovereignty.

Which is the basic reason why the status quo seems dead and buried and irrecoverable.

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