Come the end of September, Memphis City Schools
and the surrounding Shelby County School District will become one. To effect
the merger, the two districts have cobbled together a twenty-three member
school board—comprised of the MCS board, the Shelby Co. board, and another
seven appointed members thrown in for good measure. (This bloated transition
board is supposed to diet back down to the standard seven-member elected board
by the districts' 2013 deadline for combination.) While the Memphis-Shelby
merger won’t be the first such city-county union (Charlotte-Mecklenberg, NC and
Jefferson Country, KY are other examples), the “how” behind this fusion is nothing
if not unorthodox. Last year, Shelby Co. (which shares
financial responsibility with Memphis for the River City's schools)
postured that it would form a “special
district,” thereby cutting financial ties to MCS (and damming up 26 percent
of the Memphis Schools’s budget). In retaliation, the Memphis school board moved
to dissolve its own district. (In a funky statutory twist, this decision by the
board means that Memphis schools necessarily get subsumed into the Shelby Co.
district—and are thus able to keep their funding stream open.) Two-thirds
of city residents backed the move, in hopes that the higher-performing Shelby
County schools would help boost achievement for Memphis’s 103,000 students. Of
course, residents of the more affluent suburban district (47,000 students
strong) were none too pleased. They sued, and lost, bringing us back to that
23-member school board. If done right, this merger could allow for dynamic and
forward-thinking reform on both school governance and school finance. (Gadfly
gets giddy thinking about the possibilities of expanded parental choice—countywide—and
weighted-student funding among schools.) Here’s hoping that twenty-three turns
out to be a lucky number.
agreement in Memphis school merger,” by Adrian Sainz, Associated Press, August 24, 2011.
merger begins to take shape,” by Zack McMillin, Memphis Commercial Appeal, August 29, 2011.