Memphis and Shelby County Schools might be on their way to consolidation, but sentiments on the matter are far from unified. The transition team and the unified school board charged with planning and executing school consolidation have met less than a handful of times, but already five of the six municipalities surrounding Memphis are thinking about creating their own municipal schools districts, rather than send their kids to a merged Shelby County Schools, and their concerns about consolidation may not be something the people captaining the merger can overcome, no matter what they do.
Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, Arlington, and Bartlett have all hired a consultant to look at the feasibility of creating a separate, municipal school district in each of those towns. Creating a municipal district requires a minimum of a 15 cent tax increase, and possibly even more, but that’s a price many suburban residents say they’re willing to pay in order to have separate schools.
“The main thing that I hear,” said Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner, “is protect our schools. Whatever you do—protect our schools.” When asked what the threat was Joyner said, “It’s the size."
Size is a concern you’ll hear come up again and again if you talk to county politicians about the need for municipal schools. It’s also not something the people planning school consolidation can do much about.
If current enrollment at Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools stays the same when the two systems merge, then Shelby County Schools will swell from about 47,000 students to more than three times that size.
Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy is also aghast at the prospects of a larger system.
“Large urban systems are not successful and part of it has to do with the size,” Goldsworthy said.
Even merged, Shelby County Schools will still be significantly smaller than the big three urban school systems—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. New York City’s public schools have more than a million children. There aren’t a million people living in Shelby County.
But consolidation will change more than the just the size of the district. It will also change the character from largely suburban to much more urban. And, again, that’s not something the people planning consolidation can do much about. Right now none of the students in Shelby County Schools come from inside the city and about 37 percent of them are poor. After merger about 70 percent of Shelby County Schools’ students will come from inside the city and 70 percent of them will be poor. So, after merger the composition of Shelby County Schools will look a lot more like those big three urban districts, all of which have student bodies that are more than 70 percent poor.
And because nationwide poor kids score worse on standardized tests than their middle-class counterparts, it’s likely that test scores for Shelby County Schools will drop, at least initially.
“When you mass large numbers of students, and students have varying needs, I think it just becomes more and more difficult to make certain that all the necessary attention is focused on all the students,” Goldsworthy said. “We believe that municipal districts can be seen as part of the solution,” she continued. “Rather than something separate from it.”