After six hours of contentious debate, the Memphis City School Board voted 5-4 late Monday night to let city voters decide if the 109,000-student district should surrender its charter and unite with surrounding Shelby County.
The vote must be held within 60 days. And, if consolidated, the Shelby County and Memphis districts would combine to form the nation's 14th largest school district with 151,000 students. But there are still dozens of questions that would need to be answered about such a consolidation, including the status of a $90 million investment that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made in the district a year ago. The money is intended to help the districts reshape key elements of the teaching profession, and has been dubbed informally by the foundation as "deep dives" into teacher effectiveness.
Chris Williams, a spokesman for the Gates Foundation has said that its support of Memphis is unwavering despite the uncertainty about the district's future. The foundation has confidence in Superintendent Kriner Cash and the teachers in the district who are a part of the grant project.
"As long as Memphis is committed to this work, we're committed to Memphis," Williams said.
But this is not the first of the "deep dive" districts to be facing changes: Mark Roosevelt, the superintendent of the Pittsburgh district, resigned in October. Deputy Superintendent Linda Lane has been selected for the Pittsburgh leadership post, to start Jan. 1. "That's an example of a very smooth transition," Williams said, noting that Lane has been integral to Pittsburgh's work with the foundation.
Memphis' stunning move had its roots in maneuvering by neighboring Shelby County. Unlike Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and some other districts in the state, Shelby County and Memphis are not consolidated. Tax revenue is split between the Shelby County and Memphis districts.
After the November elections, debate sprang up that Shelby County would renew efforts to attain "special school district" status, which would freeze the district's boundaries and allow it taxing authority.
Memphis school officials opposed that move. Memphis currently receives more money under the current arrangement than Shelby County because it has more students.
The plan for Memphis to surrender its charter to the county was characterized as a defensive move; Tomeka Hart, a Memphis school board member, said in her blog that consolidation means "the entire county would be responsible for funding every child and those children would be funded equitably. There is no way around that!"
Shelby County's potential move for special district status and Memphis' response prompted feverish negotiations, with Shelby County indicating that it would hold off on any move to seek a change in its status until 2014, as long as Memphis would vote not to surrender its charter.
Ultimately, a majority of board members decided that Shelby County's pledge wasn't strong enough, according to a newspaper account:
After more than hour of public comment, including final requests from both Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell to delay the vote long enough so residents would at least understand what they were voting for, the board heard a recommendation, hammered out late last week with Shelby County Schools, to delay any action on either side until 2014 while the issues were studied. The deal included court injunctions if either side disregarded it and went ahead with its own plan.
But [school board member Patrice] Robinson and others wondered what was to be gained by waiting.
"Basically, the decision (is) to hold off for (the) future what we can do today," she said. "We've already looked at these issues and documentation. All the information is available. I'm concerned about this piece of paper not being anything we can enforce," she said.