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Posted Feb. 25, 2011

An Interview with Memphis Mayor AC Wharton on School Consolidation

 

By Arelya J. Mitchell,

Editor-in-Chief

The Mid-South Tribune

 

When Memphis Mayor A C Wharton went before the Memphis City Schools System Board of Education in December 2010, he went as an ‘honest broker’.

            He said in his interview with The Mid-South Tribune that he knew then where he stood on the school consolidation issue, but felt at that time that it was incumbent upon him as city mayor to broach the issue as a mediator who could help bring both proponents and opponents together to draw up a plan citizens could familiarize themselves with before voting on it—pretty much in the same constructive manner that was done in drawing up a consolidation plan to merge both city and county governments in last year’s election. A plan that failed, but at least it was not putting the cart before the horse, as was done in surrendering the city school charter.

            Some had accused Wharton of being too quiet on one of the most controversial issues in Memphis politics, but to those who know him know that he is not a jump-up hollering-type of guy in the vein of fiery activist leaders. It’s not his style, but he does get things done.

 Wharton stated: “First in respect to my position, I said at the very beginning,” and he does emphasize ‘very’ in the manner of a strict legal eagle having spent years as a prominent attorney before going into politics, “that it would be inappropriate for me to take sides because then I could no longer call myself an honest broker…but once it became clear that [the school board would vote in favor of surrendering its charter] then I did not hesitate to state my personal position…I just want people to know where I am, but I am not going to go out and criticize those who oppose the surrender.”

And, for the record, he is for consolidating the  Memphis and Shelby County school systems.

“My proposal was that we know there is going to be a merger and give the two sides an opportunity to work out the method of transition to see where teachers would go, what buildings would be used … then set a period of time [to vote on it].

He again emphasized that if  board members had done it the correct way, as he believes was done on the issue of consolidating both city and county governments before the matter hit the voting booth, there would have been put in place a “methodology” and “questions” voters needed answering “would have been answered.”

            In a nutshell: The Memphis City School Board surrendered its charter and when the ‘surrender of its charter’ went before the Memphis City Council, the council accepted it—all of which left the school board technically non-existent, so those board members who still meet virtually every Monday night can be deemed  invisible as far as state law is concerned.

            Wharton said that giving up the charter was all done legally, but because of the very fact that it was done without any formal plan or even thought out properly leaves the issue in un-chartered legal waters, so to speak.

            “…This has never been done in the way it was done here,” he continued very much in the same ‘how did this happen?’ way many Memphians are expressing. “[The school board] should have said ‘this is how it would be done’…folks might not have known the ultimate answers [on what would happen] but they would know the process that’s going to be used in getting the answers.”

                        Some of those questions Wharton gave as an example had to do with a favorite principal or teacher being kept at a school where parents might want him or her to remain. Wharton said that if a thought-out plan had been in place that would have at least given concerned citizens and parents an opportunity to have a say and/or campaign to keep that person at that particular school.

            Wharton also went on to talk about what he calls the 13th Issue Rule. Before he even begins to explain it, he acknowledges that people regardless of race or color move into neighborhoods where they believe their children will get the best education. The 13th Issue Rule assumes a student will spend 13 years in school (s) located in his or her respective neighborhood or at any rate, close to the vicinity. For example, if a family moves into a neighborhood and wants their six-year-old to go to Richland Elementary, the parents can pretty much count on that six-year-old to go to Richland Elementary then go on to White Station Middle School and from there go to White Station High School and graduate from there.

            He described this as a “freeze” on where the student will be educated “unless the parents wish otherwise”— for example, if they happen to choose an optional school in the system.

            “Face it,” says Wharton, “a lot of people do buy homes near school systems and it is unfair to them to defeat their expectations.”

            What happens if the school consolidation referendum is defeated?

            “If it’s defeated then the charter is not surrendered unless the court holds onto the action of the Memphis City Council [in accepting the surrendered charter] and puts Memphis City Schools out of business,” he says, adding that if the court doesn’t uphold the surrender of the charter to the council or chooses not to get involved if the referendum is defeated, the city council could rescind it and Memphis City Schools System “trucks along.”

            However, Wharton believes that since the school board has given up the charter and that consolidation is inevitable anyway in the long run that it would be like starting over from scratch. Already, the trend in Tennessee has been to consolidate county and city school systems such as in the case of Davidson County (Nashville).

            “Let’s say that it is defeated because people don’t know what’s going on,” he elaborates, “…you can always start over, but I don’t know if there will be an appetite for it in the immediate future… You can see how stressful it is now.”

            Wharton stated unapologetically: “I have divided loyalties. I am elected to look out for the citizens of Memphis and their interests which are currently entrampled by our method of funding schools… We are the only city [in Tennessee] whose residents pay twice for schools… we pay through city taxes and our county taxes.”

            Wharton also points out that nowhere in the state law does it say that the city is responsible for education; the law reads that the county and the state are the only entities responsible for education.

            As for the other county towns threatening to form their own special school districts reminiscent of white flight, Wharton sees such a move as counter productive, indicating that they could end up in worse shape than Memphis already is with its double whammy tax problem.

            “I just observe,” he says, “and dare not tell any mayor how to run his or her business…but until you have walked a mile in my shoes, you really don’t know what it means to take on your own school system… I know how it feels to hear at the beginning of your budget year that one-third of your budget is off limits [because the city has to fund the school system]. Because once you take the emotionalism out of it and look at it in terms of cold stark dollars, it’s a daunting proposition… let me say this…every mayor will have to take it out of his budget but it’s from the same taxpayer base that will be paying special school district tax—they’ll have to pay two municipal taxes and a county tax…and that gets into ‘tax fatigue’.”

            Since this is Black History Month, he was asked to comment on education, a theme of The Mid-South Tribune’s 16th Anniversary and one that was planned long before the hot issue of school consolidation came up.

            “Education is a great liberator,” he began, “and when I say that I don’t mean from the bonds of racial oppression, but it is the great liberator of poverty, neglect, crime, drug abuse, poor housing… because well-educated people have self-esteem and pride. A young woman who is well-educated knows she can get just as many men with her head as she can with her hips. A young man who is well-educated knows he can get ahead by sticking his head in a book as opposed to sticking a needle in his arm. Education whets their appetite for learning and self-improvement. Education is what the doctor ordered to get rid of the ills in our society. It’s hard to oppress a person when he or she has knowledge and self-esteem.”

 

                                        -30-