The Tilt Factor 

With county schools threatening to become a special school district, city schools talk about surrendering their charter.

The year 2011 will be the most critical year for public schools in Memphis and Shelby County since 1974, when court-ordered busing for desegregation caused 28,500 white students to bail out of the city school system.

We are at a tipping point, to use a phrase popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell but in common use long before that. Another way of saying it is "tilt factor," the pinball-machine phrase used by the author of the Memphis busing plan. Either way, it's the point where a trickle becomes a flood, where an uneasy equilibrium blows up. In short, game over.

For city schools, the tilt factor for black-white enrollment used to be pegged at 70-30 when there was still a significant white population. For colleges, the tipping point for female-male enrollment is roughly 60-40.

For Memphis and Shelby County, it's the funding formula that ties the city and county schools together but places a heavier tax burden on Memphis than the suburbs. White enrollment in Memphis City Schools fell below 10 percent years ago and is nearing 5 percent. The issue now is the Memphis tax base that supports schools and services an area of 300-plus square miles.

Thanks in part to the consolidation debate, which underlined the tax inequity between Memphis and the suburbs and the drain of the Memphis tax base, any increase in city property taxes and/or reduction in county property taxes risks pushing us over the tipping point. The exact numbers depend on which suburban municipality you choose. But, in general, if Macy's (Memphis) sells something for $7.26 and Dillards (Germantown) sells a better product for $5.50, Macy's is going out of business sooner or later.

On one side are the Shelby County Schools (SCS) Board of Education, board president David Pickler, and some influential Republican state legislators who want to make Shelby County Schools a special school district. The goal is to ensure its independence from Memphis once and for all and leave Memphis City Schools to its own merry devices.

The Memphis City Schools Board of Education is divided.

Some members, including President Freda Williams, want to "work together" with Pickler and his friends and preserve the status quo. MCS, remember, gets more than $1 billion a year in total funding and employs 7,700 teachers and administrators. Like the consolidation debate, the issue of separate-but-equal school systems has created strange bedfellows among suburban whites and urban blacks.

Other MCS board members, including Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart, are willing to let MCS give up its charter and become part of a giant county system. They offered a resolution Monday night that will be voted on in December.

In essence, what we have here is a little nuclear showdown. If SCS fires the special-district nuke, then MCS will fire the surrender-the-charter nuke.

Can they both do it? Will they? Who's bluffing? We shall see. The stakes have not been this high in more than three decades.

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