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Early Turnout Low in Memphis District Consolidation Vote

Last December, the Memphis school board voted to allow Memphis residents to decide if they wanted to dissolve the 104,000-student school district and put it under the control of neighboring Shelby County schools, which has about 47,000 students.

The move set off fireworks. Supporters of consolidation say that the merger would ensure that resources are shared equitably among city and county schools. Opponents say that combining the two districts would cause disorder and disarray. Everyone has weighed in, from the governor, to state lawmakers, to local elected officials (The Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper has created a web page that has links to a wealth of information about the controversial proposal.)

Everyone has had a chance to talk, except for the voters. But judging by early voter turnout, their response has been ho-hum: As of Tuesday, about 4.3 percent of registered voters in the city, or a little over 18,000 people, cast a vote during the early voting period, which began Feb.16. The election is March 8.

Martavius Jones, a Memphis school board member and a supporter of district consolidation, told me he was disappointed that the turnout so far has been so low: "I thought they would have been able to agree with one side or the other."

The special election is hampered by being outside of the regular election cycle. (For comparison's sake, voter turnout was 67 percent for the November 2008 presidential election.) But school governance would seem to be an important enough issue to bring out parents. As it stands now, unless there is a groundswell of interest on Tuesday, a decision on a proposal that will have a major impact on two school districts—with the new district potentially becoming among the largest in the country—may be made by a mere fraction of voters.

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