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Memphis Residents Vote to Merge City, County Schools

Memphis residents voted Tuesday by a wide margin to merge the 105,000-student city school system with the neighboring suburban district of Shelby County, creating a consolidated school system of more than 150,000 students.

With all precincts reporting, 67 percent of voters said yes to consolidation, and 33 voted no. A story in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal discusses the results.

The merger will not take place overnight. The Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill that was signed into law on Feb. 11 mandating that any consolidation must involve a comprehensive transition plan created by a planning commission. The bill also says that a merger can take place no sooner than three school years after the vote is certified.

But it may take even longer than that for the school districts to join, if a merger happens at all.

David Pickler, the president of the Shelby County school board and a fierce opponent of consolidation, told me last week that he feels the county is on solid ground with a federal lawsuit claiming that the merger would violate the right of Memphis children to a public education. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and Tennessee's acting commissioner of education, Patrick Smith, are all parties to the suit.

This whole twisted tale started in December. Leaders in Shelby County have long wanted to attain "special school district" status for the system, which would allow Shelby County schools to freeze its boundaries and gain taxing authority. Currently, county and city taxpayers have their tax dollars pooled, then redistributed to each school system based on population. Memphis, as the larger district, gets more of the money.

Some Memphis school board members saw Shelby County's desire for special school district status as a threat to the financial stability of Memphis schools. After the November 2008 elections, the state legislature became even more tilted towards the Republicans, who were considered to be amenable to lifting a statewide ban on the creation of new special school districts—right in line with the goal of county school leaders.

So the Memphis consolidation vote was seen as a pre-emptive strike against losing those tax dollars from Shelby County residents.

The debate over the benefits or problems of consolidation quickly became emotionally charged, with some Memphis residents saying that the predominantly white and more-affluent county school system didn't want to take on the struggles of Memphis, which is predominantly black and has a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Martavius Jones, a Memphis school board member and a supporter of the merger, said in an article I wrote earlier this week that he believed there was class-based opposition to the merger. Consolidation opponent David Pickler called such allegations "intellectually lazy."

It remains to be seen if the merger effort will ultimately work. In addition to the state-mandated transition period, and on top of the legal wrangling sure to come, the Tennessee General Assembly added one more twist: In addition to creating a planning commission, and delaying a merger for three years, the legislation passed in February did one more thing—it lifted the statewide ban on creating special school districts for one jurisdiction, which is Shelby County.

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