Students and public schools in Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities are almost certainly going to be part of the consolidated Shelby County public school system that debuts in August.
Last week’s federal court ruling tossing out one of the three state laws that allowed the suburbs to begin immediately forming separate or municipal school districts makes it unlikely the suburbs could do over decisions Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays voided in the ruling in time for a summer start.
At least until Mays rules on the two other municipal school districts laws, Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy says there may be talks about the schools merger, but the suburbs will continue to prefer their own school districts with separate school boards even with a late start of their own school districts.
“I think there are many unanswered questions as to what school will look like. We’ve had a lot of assurances that the children won’t be moved, faculties will remain intact,” she said. “But there are nuances as to decisions that will have been made in the meantime about how programming will be under way and the pieces of the merger that have to come together over the next few months, suggest to us that things will not be business as usual.”
Goldsworthy commented on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines” along with countywide school board members Martavius Jones and David Pickler.
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.
Jones proposed the 2010 resolution that the Memphis City Schools board approved that started the merger process. The state legislation that allowed for the option of separate municipal school districts was a reaction to that.
“I don’t think there’s anyone that’s saying, ‘No, don’t let them break off,’” he said. “I still think that there is, in my opinion, a legitimate concern about the school buildings.”
Pickler, who as chairman of the former Shelby County Schools board opposed the merger, said there remains the perceptions about what a merger means in classrooms.
“Will there be a cliff that we’ll fall off in Germantown and academic quality will drop and there will be dramatic changes? Probably not,” he said. “But I think that there are valid concerns. … We want municipal districts. We want to be able to have the ability to have that total control. But if we can’t get that we have to be able to begin at least a conversation about other options.”
Driving the debate and key to the success of any talks is tackling whether a unified school system including the suburbs would or could be a school system that allows for the ways of an urban school system and the ways of a suburban school system to coexist.
As school board chairman Billy Orgel called last week for talks with the suburbs on schools unification, Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash echoed that but added, “It’s going to be an urban school system.”
Pickler said that conclusion is one side of a large gap between suburban and urban school interests.
“I’ve also heard former Memphis City Schools board members talk about the fact that if we could take the test scores from suburban Shelby County, from Shelby County Schools and average those with the test scores of the city of Memphis that would make all of the scores look better,” he said. “It’s not a zero sum gain. Our position is that trying to retain the great legacy with the suburban districts should not in any way diminish the opportunity of the city school board to pursue that same degree of excellence.”
Jones said large urban school systems on a countywide basis with suburban areas included have a record of achievement in other states, if not in Tennessee.
“I don’t agree with the fact that if you have an urban or large county school district that academic achievement is going to suffer,” Jones said. “I don’t think that just because you have an urban school district then academic gains are going to suffer.”
Goldsworthy said she has no quarrel with additional resources – financial and otherwise – for urban schools.
“I think some of the legacy that has been created in Shelby County Schools … has relied substantially on having a fair share of the dollars. They will continue to have the support from the community, which has been substantial,” she said. “We understand the need to address the most critical issues probably with more money, but where is it going to come from. And if it’s not additional tax dollars, it’s hard to think that it’s not going to affect the kind of programming that we desire in our own communities.”