bartlett_high_school_250Main Street Journal
August 15, 2011
Online exclusive

Having decisively defeated consolidation last August, residents of Shelby County outside Memphis were shocked just a few months later when they learned their school system would be the next target of destruction.

During the city-county consolidation effort, voters were told schools were off the table — making the plan more palatable for concerned parents and residents who chose to live in a community that offered a functional school system.

The consolidation racket knew full well the county school system would be next to fall, and that it could be accomplished unilaterally, with no input from the residents of Arlington, Bartlett, Germantown and the others.

Consolidation backers have never been all that interested in the views of their hesitant neighbors. They had hoped to pass government consolidation by a simple majority. When that didn’t pan out, they vowed to keep forcing new votes until they got their way, while also rejecting the legal right of the outer cities to have an equal status in the decision. Still, they’ve always considered themselves intimately familiar with suburban motivations, finding racism lurking behind every argument for small government and local control.

The progressive elites behind this movement maintain a decidedly inconsistent view of minority rights. They hope to convince us that 71% of the county must have immediate representation on a county board that will assume the responsibility of the soon-to-be-defunct special school system in Memphis. That system was eliminated with the backing of just 21 thousand votes, none of them cast by suburban residents, and representing a mere 3.9 percent of voters registered in Shelby County. But if 3.9 percent of voters can be said to speak for the entire county, why can’t 29 percent adequately represent their interests on an interim basis?

In his ruling last week, U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays, Jr., gave neither side everything they wanted. The Shelby County Commission would be blocked from replacing the duly-elected county school board members with their own political favorites. On the other hand, Judge Mays correctly observed that the current county districts do not represent Memphis voters, and that new districts would need to be drawn and new members elected.

In addition, the judge declared the Norris-Todd law valid and operable, which has two important ramifications.

First, it means our state representatives were correct in revising the law to allow for a reasonable planning period and transition process, as originally requested by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell in a joint news conference earlier this year.

For purely financial reasons, Memphis leaders had attempted to disband the city school system, without any plan whatsoever for the children or for the transition of school control to the much smaller county school system.

Immediately upon surrendering the charter, however, they decided they wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. So next came the plan to take over the county school system with the same leadership that failed Memphis City School students. To accomplish this, they had to demonize consolidation opponents like SCS Chairman David Pickler and anyone else who stood in their way. Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi C. Thomas even took to Twitter to publicly regret the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris didn’t “drown” in the well of the Senate.

Second, because the Norris-Todd law allows municipalities to create their own school systems, the judge’s ruling means the residents of Shelby County have an important decision to make. Will we submit to the inevitability of a bloated, lumbering, consolidated school system? Or will we seek to create smaller school districts with more focused oversight and local control?

Within hours of Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald indicating that his city would take a look at the options, his motivations were questioned, he faced a new round of racism charges, and Fox 13 even warned of “the threat of a Bartlett school succession [sic].”

The consolidation movement was launched for the wrong reasons and treats suburban residents with nothing but contempt, but Shelby County should remain optimistic and hopeful that something good can ultimately come from all of this. Although certain Memphis politicians meant us harm, they’ve actually handed us a chance to make our schools even better than they were.

Each community should be allowed to control its own destiny, and each parent should be allowed to determine how best to educate her own children.

Toward that end, citizen-led groups in Bartlett and Germantown have launched websites and Facebook pages, sharing information, gauging public opinion and making recommendations. At BetterBartlettSchools.org, we’re conducting a survey of Bartlett residents to see where they currently stand, because none of the available options will come without costs and trade-offs.

Efforts to set up new school districts will face the likelihood of significantly higher taxes, the possibility of a protracted legal fight over ownership of school buildings and other issues, and of course the continued name-calling.

But none of these can be excuses for failing to explore all of the options available to us and to make the very best choice for our children and our community.