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From the Heart
"The Legacy of Shelby County Schools"
SHELBY COUNTY SCHOOLS
The End of an Era
This is a very difficult column for me to write because I have had the honor and privilege over the past fifteen years to serve and advocate for one of America's greatest school systems, Shelby County Schools. As many of you are aware, on July 1, Memphis City Schools ceases to exist, forcing a "merger" with Shelby County Schools. This transfer of the responsibility for educating the 110,000 public school children within the City of Memphis from MCS to SCS is the direct result of the actions of the MCS Board of Education on December 20, 2010 to vote, in a narrow 4-3 decision, to surrender their charter. This action was ratified by vote of the people of Memphis in a referendum that saw well less than twenty percent of registered voters cast ballots to "transfer the administration of MCS to Shelby County Schools." Most voters believed that they were transferring responsibility of the education of their children from a struggling MCS to the primarily suburban, high-performing SCS. Unfortunately, that is not what occurred.
Almost immediately, legal strategies were implemented to effect a "hostile takeover" of the Shelby County Schools governance, administration, and policy structure by the majority MCS interests. Within the Memphis and Shelby County area, two school systems had been operating for well more than a century. Memphis City Schools was created as a type of special/municipal school district to serve the children of the largest city in the county (as well as the State of Tennessee). Under Tennessee law, absent a municipal or special school district being in existence to serve the educational needs of the children, all public education is administered by the County School District for each of Tennessee's 95 counties. At the time of the surrender of the MCS charter, approximately 110,000 children were served by Memphis City Schools. It was a predominantly urban district with significant challenges due to poverty concerns, but also due to a lack of leadership and direction from its dysfunctional school board and revolving door of short term Superintendents, each with their own reform agenda. Shelby County Schools was predominantly rural and suburban, serving nearly 50,000 children. While receiving dramatically less funding than MCS on a per pupil basis, SCS had a legacy of excellence, with very high graduation rates, parent participation and engagement, and student achievement performance. SCS was considered to be one of the best school systems in the nation, due at least in part to a track record of consistent leadership by district administration and the school board. When the surrender ratification vote was taken, suburban residents were denied the right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.
Over the next several months, the Memphis legal strategy was to move to dismantle the leadership structure of SCS. As a result, on October 1, 2011, a federal judge ordered the creation of a new school board with 23 members, the seven former members of the SCS Board, the nine former members of the MCS Board, and seven new Board members to be appointed by the County governing body. This action set into motion the process that has seen virtually every vestige of a once great school system to be methodically destroyed and overtaken by the policies and personnel that doomed MCS to mediocrity.
As we approach the formal "merger" date, very little remains of the administration that the people of Memphis had voted to transfer control of their district. Both Superintendents have demanded buyouts and left. Many senior administrators and school leaders have voted with their feet and left the district. The former MCS is slowly being taken over by Charter school operators and State-run Charters. And the people of Memphis and Shelby County have begun their own personal exodus to surrounding communities and counties. The long term implications of these decisions to relocate residences and spending patterns to areas where educational choices are more attractive is potentially disastrous to the economy of the region.
For nearly 150 years, Shelby County Schools built a legacy of educational excellence and student achievement that was the envy of districts across America. Strong leadership, visionary and supportive Boards of Education, engaged parents and families, committed community and business investment, and highly dedicated teachers and staff all were essential ingredients to creating an environment for excellence. While SCS was traditionally one of the lowest funded school systems in the country, its academic performance and commitment to maintaining a culture of mutual respect and family empowered this little district to achieve true greatness. The last act of the independent Shelby County Schools family of Administrators, Board members, parents, community stakeholders, faculty and staff was to achieve District-wide accreditation. This recognition of the excellence of SCS was the culmination of a three year review process of deep and wide research into SCS operations and academics. This accreditation validated and memorialized the true legacy of a great school system, as a place where every child was empowered with the opportunity to achieve their dreams and fulfill their potential.
As we move into this "shotgun wedding" of a merger, the future of public education in Shelby County is uncertain. It is highly anticipated that each of the six suburban municipalities that comprised SCS will establish their own school districts prior to the 2014-2015 school year. With the Tennessee legislature removing any limits to Charter school approvals and severely limiting the ability of local Boards of Education to effectively limit Charter school approvals to only those most qualified to operate high quality Charters, and with the State continuing their move to takeover under performing former MCS schools with State run Charters, delivery of quality public education will be significantly challenged in this community.
That is another ultimate tragedy of the political motivations that propelled four members of the MCS Board to push so hard for the charter surrender. Their zeal to destroy Shelby County Schools and promote further urban-suburban division may have, as its ultimate consequence, the utter destruction of public education as we know it in Shelby County. This could destroy Memphis' long term economic prospects . Memphis and Shelby County are filled with dedicated community servants who care deeply about their city and region. As is often the case, education can be used as a political pawn in the chess match of governance. Unfortunately, that can result in check mating the educational opportunities for those most at risk. And that is the ultimate defeat. Shelby County Schools legacy of excellence will be reborn in the six suburban communities. The resolve of suburban residents to fight for educational excellence and legislative success to empower the independence and autonomy of their schools is a testament to their commitment to their future. God Bless Shelby County Schools.