Memphis School Board Merger Historic But Not Without Controversy

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memphisMemphis, Tennessee residents voted in favor of a merger between the 105,000-student city school system and the much smaller neighboring suburban district of Shelby County. The historic vote took place earlier this week, but actual implementation may take much longer due to legalities. In fact, leaders of the two school systems reportedly say that conflicting laws make it unclear how to actually proceed with the merger.

“There is some ambiguity and conflict with state law,” said Martavius Jones, a champion of the consolidation and a Memphis school board member. He favors the county commission forming a new school board right away while others believe that the existing school boards should remain for the time being. In addition, sources say that the merger situation has been emotionally charged, with some Memphis residents saying that the predominantly white and more-affluent county system didn’t want to take on the struggles of Memphis, which has a predominantly black student body and a high percentage of students who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. However, Kriner Cash, Ed.D., Superintendent, Memphis City Schools has stressed, “We need now to return our focus to the substantive educational conversation about how to ensure an equal and high quality learning experience for all children, every day, in all subjects.”

Given that education is a particularly key concern at the moment, the handling of this merger and its budget is one that has made for great interest. The Memphis school system has received $65 million in federal Race to the Top funding out of $500 million granted to the state, and a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Superintendent Cash has said that it is unclear whether finances for Memphis city schools will improve with the merger.

It is interesting to note that sixty-seven percent of voters said ‘yes’ to consolidating the two school districts, which would become one of the 20 largest in the nation. But voter turnout for the early March referendum showed only 17 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Experts say that this figure is particularly telling in that it really speaks to the larger problem endemic within certain communities in our country where people are not being fully engaged and not truly committed to the educational future of our community.

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