The Commercial Appeal

No one really got what they wanted in schools merger

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The face of public education in Memphis and Shelby County officially changes Monday when Memphis City Schools goes out of business and the new Shelby County unified school district takes over.

The new district, which will start classes Aug. 5, was born in an atmosphere of persistent urban-suburban acrimony, fed by class and racial issues.

Suburban leaders and many suburban parents are unwilling partners in the merged district, with the suburban municipali­ties embarking on steps that could lead to Arlington, Bartlett, Colliervil­le, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington having their own school districts by the 2014-2015 school year.

For the upcoming school year at least, it would be great if the two sides can put their difference­s aside and work together to make sure that the students in the new countywide district receive the best education possible. We realize that is easier said than done, but if the goal professed by opponents and proponents of the merger is “to do what is best for the children” regarding education, then getting along should be easier.

In the bigger picture, neither side really got what it wanted out of the merger. The whole issue of one consolidat­ed school system had been talked about for decades in the context of government consolidat­ion being a more efficient way to govern.

The Memphis school board, in 2010, began the process of surrenderi­ng the MCS charter after it appeared county leaders were moving toward creating a special school district composed of schools in the municipali­ties and unincorpor­ated Shelby County. There was a fear, among other things, that a special district would siphon money away from the city schools.

In the end, nothing has worked out as expected for either side. Early voting has begun on referendum­s in the suburban municipali­ties that will let them create their own school districts. The referendum­s are likely to pass, meaning that the new unified district once again will be an urban school system when classes begin for the 2014-2015 school year.

The suburbs will not have the special school district they initially envisioned, but they won’t be part of the consolidat­ed district. But that could turn out to be a costly victory since each city will now be responsibl­e for funding its own district, including administra­tive and support staff, teachers and other accouterme­nts that make up a school system.

The voters in the municipali­ties passed referendum­s last summer to increase their cities’ sales tax rates by a half-cent to pay for the school districts. For some of the cities, though, it is beginning to look like that will not be enough.

The merger has resulted in some painful staff reductions to save money due to duplicatio­n of jobs and because the district will be starting out with a budget that is $75 million less than both systems received last year. As a result, the district will not be able to make some of the enhanced educationa­l investment­s laid out in the merger plan developed by the Transition Planning Commission.

That means the world-class school system merger proponents wanted will not happen this school year. That does not mean it eventually cannot happen once the merger process is fully completed and tweaked, including knowing whether the suburban schools will be part of the district.

Things have not worked out as everyone thought, but the merger still gives the community an opportunit­y, if the will is there, to do something special with public education.

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