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Effect of Memphis-Shelby County School District Merger

By Sandra Knispel | Published 06 Jan 2011 09:28am | comments

DeSoto County in north Mississippi is closely watching the fallout from the back-and-forth over whether to consolidate the Memphis City and Shelby County school districts in Tennessee. As MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports, for DeSoto being the nearest school district across the state line means a direct knock-on effect from the ongoing quarrel.

The Memphis City Schools board voted in December to surrender its charter and merge with Shelby County schools. The Shelby system is roughly one third the size of the Memphis system, whiter, more affluent and many say better run. By contrast, Memphis City schools are 86 percent black and economically disadvantaged. Shelby County is now threatening to file a lawsuit to stop the consolidation. At last month’s school board meeting, a Memphis City parent, Chris Lareau, argued for consolidation.

"A special school district in Shelby County is economically unfeasible for city residents who are a majority of our county population. A special school district is morally wrong in Shelby County," Lareau said.

Before the two districts can merge a referendum has to pass the City of Memphis. However, the Shelby County Election Commission is playing for time, refusing to set the date for the referendum until the Memphis City Council passes a resolution. Across the state line in DeSoto County, school officials are watching the situation closely.

“Well any time, they start talking about messing with the school system that people are happy with like in the Shelby County school system’s case, people will start looking – what are the alternatives? And one of the better alternatives is – come to DeSoto County,” said John Caldwell, the transportation director for the DeSoto County schools.

“We’ve witnessed it in the transportation department where when those people start moving and make that flight to DeSoto County we see the subdivisions go up a little faster, the bus routes have to be extended and it costs us money," Caldwell added.

This quarrel may well end up in the hands of Tennessee legislators. The Republican majority is investigating a law that would permanently separate Shelby County from Memphis City Schools. Alternatively, the case could end up in federal court - if Memphis City children are not allowed a free and equal education.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.

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