Memphis Voters To Decide School Merger Proposal

Voters in Memphis go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to merge the city's school system with that of suburban Shelby County. Both city and county schools are funded through joint tax revenues. But after Shelby County officials asked the state to separate the county into a new taxing district, the city school board dropped its school charter and forced the merger vote.

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Like many places in this country, the school system in the City of Memphis is mostly black, while the suburban system is mostly white. The two districts have had an uneasy relationship since Memphis schools were desegregated in the 1960s. For decades now, they have been battling over funding and school quality. Tomorrow, the people of Memphis will vote on a plan to merge the city's school system with the suburban one, in Shelby County. As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the proposal has reopened deep divisions over race and class.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: On the face of it, tomorrow's vote is about the financial stability and quality of public schools in Shelby County and Memphis, which is part of Shelby County. But in reality...

Mr. DAVID PICKLER (Chairman, Shelby County Board of Education): It's been about money. It's been about power. It's not been about the kids. And that, to me, is the greatest tragedy of all.

SANCHEZ: David Pickler chairs Shelby County's board of education. It oversees 47,000 mostly white students, or about a third of the county's total student population. Memphis enrolls the other two-thirds, 103,000 students, almost all of whom are black. But unlike Memphis, says Pickler...

Mr. PICKER: We're very blessed in Shelby County schools. We have a tremendous legacy of strong family and parental support. We are trying to protect the children that we serve - of all races, of all creeds, of all economic backgrounds. And we are trying to avoid being taken over by a school system that has a legacy of failure.

SANCHEZ: It was the fear of a hostile takeover by Memphis that convinced Pickler to ask the state legislature to make Shelby County a special school district with its own taxing authority. Members of the Memphis School Board say that would cut the city's school funding almost in half. So they called for the merger to pre-empt Shelby County from separating. Shelby County school officials also oppose the merger because they say the two systems are so different - their academic culture, their funding priorities are like night and day.

Ms. DEIDRE MALONE (Former Shelby County Commissioner): It's an unfortunate perception, but it is one that exists.

SANCHEZ: That's Deidre Malone, a former Shelby County commissioner and a longtime proponent of a merger. She says Pickler has tried to portray Memphis as a dysfunctional school system run by inept people. Malone admits Memphis has lots of struggling schools, but more than half are in good standing. So this is not about a terrible school system somehow infecting an excellent one.

Ms. MALONE: And I'm going to tell you what I think the real fear is. The real fear is that the suburbanites lose control; the suburbanites will no longer be the majority in the district.

SANCHEZ: Shelby County's all-white, seven-member school board would become part of a bigger board, mostly likely dominated by black Memphians. Now, trying to explain all of what you've heard thus far to voters, let alone making sense of the convoluted school funding formulas and tax schemes a merger would require, has been exhausting and tedious.

Unidentified Woman: So if the referendum fails, as we responded, then they get a special school district status and...

SANCHEZ: Only 20 people showed up at this meeting at Douglass High School, in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Afterwards there were a few questions, but some people left confused. Carl Shaw was unsure of how he'll vote tomorrow.

Mr. CARL SHAW: I'm just trying to get a better understanding myself before we vote.

SANCHEZ: What is your biggest concern?

Mr. SHAW: I guess my biggest concern is the effect on the kids.

SANCHEZ: Others left with the sense that it is all about race. Even though the merger does not call for busing black or white kids around, Laquida Boykins says Shelby County wants nothing to do with Memphis.

Ms. LAQUIDA BOYKINS: They merge, Memphis city school students will have more options to go to Shelby County schools, and that opens the gate which they have held closed for so many years. They don't want to open.

SANCHEZ: Meanwhile, all that the pro- and anti-merger campaigns have proven is that there's no consensus. Parent organizations, unions, teachers, the clergy are all split. And if you listen to local talk radio in Memphis, it reflects the divisions in the black community. Thaddeus Matthews, on WPLX, has leveled his harshest criticism at the minority of wealthy blacks who live in the county and also oppose a merger.

Mr. THADDEUS MATTHEWS (Talk Radio, WPLX): You bourgeois Negroes. Now you're living in the suburbs, and you want to think that you better than everybody else. If your ass is out here telling black folk that our children do not deserve the same education as white children, ya'll crazy as hell. Woo! It's 9:02, right here on AM-1180 WPLX.

SANCHEZ: As for tomorrow's vote, even if Memphis voters approve the merger, Shelby County school officials have vowed to do everything in their power to block it in the courts, and continue to lobby the Tennessee legislature to protect their schools from ever having to merge with the Memphis city schools.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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