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The merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools

November 17, 2011

The metropolitan area of Memphis, Tennessee, located on the Mississippi River on the far southwest corner of the State of Tennessee is the home of two large school districts that may soon become one: Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. Memphis City Schools (according to the New York Times article) is comprised of 85% black students with 103,000 total students and Shelby County Schools (which covers a portion of Memphis and six incorporated suburbs to its north and east) is comprised of 38% black students with 47,000 total student. Median family income in Memphis City Schools is $32,000 compared to $92,000 in Shelby County Schools.


In the mid 1960’s Memphis had about 130,000 students with 50% being black 50% being white in largely segregated areas. Because of the segregated communities by race and the obvious unequal educational opportunities that usually follow, numerous court battles ensued which culminated in 1973 with Federally-ordered busing of students to equalize the cultural diversity in several communities. This provoked “white flight” to the suburbs of Memphis which caused Shelby County Schools to swell in numbers. Approximately 40,000 of Memphis City Schools 71,000 white students fled to Shelby County Schools within 4 years.


“More recently (NY Times), the suburbs have diversified, as middle class black families left behind an impoverished central city(Memphis). But The Shelby County school board remained all white, and much of the system still seems segregated. Collierville High School, outside Memphis, was 82 white last year, while Southwind High, 10 miles away, and also in Shelby County Schools was 92% black.”


With this continued demographic absence of diversity there is further argument for the consolidation (some would say “annexation”) of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. Many parents along with school officials and legal minds as well as financial wizards who see the obvious benefits of higher tax revenue have argued for consolidation for years. Because of the historically higher income in the county as compared to the city, many have argued that it will be the county who has the most to lose in a consolidation.


In August of 2011, U.S. District Judge Samuel Mays ruled that the districts consolidate by 2013. MCS and SCS officials began the mediation process that month and the agreement was reached in late August.”  Smaller surrounding municipalities, including Germantown, Bartlett and Collierville, are deciding whether to branch off and form their own new district(s). The mayors of each of these cities have expressed concerns about the size of a consolidated MCS/SCS School System. This final decision will be left up to those municipalities. Memphis City Schools folded into Shelby County Schools on October 1, 2011.


The NYT article quotes Kenya Bradshaw, Secretary of a separate commission set up to recommend policies for combining the new districts: “People can see that this is an opportunity to reflect on our history and not make the same mistakes … If people are leaving for reasons that they don’t want their children to be around children of color or children who are poor, the I say to them, ‘I bid you farewell.'”  Although race is an obvious issue here there is no doubt that the financial issues may be an even greater challenge of any large school district in the future. Memphis City Schools is just completing an agreement this year with the repayment of obligated funds from The Memphis Board of Commissioners who had held up millions of dollars from The Memphis City Schools. Memphis City Schools has been supplying numerous documents to Shelby County Schools regarding it’s “inner workings”.


As with the consolidation of any school districts there will be many fiscal issues. Transportation, personnel management, the establishment of a new administrative leadership team, the need to inform and involve the community are just some of the many issues to be addressed prior to August of 2013. Many adults might find that students are the most willing to reach out and establish something that will be bold and new. Very often it is the pre-conceptions and biases of adults that are the most likely to impede progress.


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