Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Is school merger a tough sell?

   Less than two weeks remain before Memphis voters decide one way or the other to consolidate Memphis and Shelby County Schools. So far, the dismal number of early votes might be an indication that voters are not as enthusiastic about the referendum or just don't understand what it entails.
   To date, less than 4,000 votes have been cast out of 412,000 registered voters in Memphis. Early voting ends March 3; March 8 is Election Day. The politicians and civic leaders who either support the merger or oppose it have both launched grassroots campaigns to educate voters on the pros and cons of merging the two school districts.
   One of them is Citizens for Better Education. On Feb. 19, the advocacy group opened its second headquarters in Midtown at 2867 Poplar Ave. The initial headquarters was opened in Whitehaven at 4118 South Plaza. The group, managed by political activist Cardell Orrin and former county commissioner Deidre Malone, is supporting the merger.
   "This is a single issue advocacy group," said Malone. "The whole point is to educate people on the referendum ... to get them to see the value in voting yes."
   Malone, Orrin and CBE volunteers have been disseminating information via handbills, signs and marketing strategies to try to debunk any fears that Memphis voters might have regarding the consolidation of MCS and SCS.
   "A big part of this is getting the people to feel secure in voting yes," Orrin said.
   Those who are for the merger are just as adamant about their position as those who are against it. The Memphis Education Association, for example, has been clear about its opposition to the merger. So has Rev. Dwight Montgomery, president of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a number of baptist ministers.
   "I say let's vote no," Montgomery said. "I say let's keep Memphis City Schools. Let's do an assessment and evaluation of MCS and do what is necessary for MCS to operate better in the best interest of educating children."
   The confusion has overwhelmed the citizens of Memphis, he said, and based on the low turnout of early voters, "many people are choosing not to vote on the referendum."    
   The opposition really doesn't have all the facts, Orrin said. "What they have on their side is the ability to try to create fear. Unfortunately, folks from the city are buying into that and helping to push that message of fear." 
   Since Memphis is the largest city in Shelby County, Malone said those outside of Memphis are afraid that if the referendum passes, Memphis will have majority control over a unified school system. "What we need to be afraid of as Memphians is that we're going to lose a large revenue base to fund our schools," she said.
   Last week, another group of ministers announced its support for a unified school district. Montgomery's group, however, has been quite vocal for weeks in their opposition to the merger. As time winds down, factions on both sides of the issue are campaigning vigorously to encourage voters to vote their way at the polls.
   "Here's my position," said Montgomery. "I can understand the original reason why Martavious Jones proposed to surrender the charter based on the fact they're trying to prevent Shelby County from establishing a special school district. ... Unfortunately, Shelby County still will be able to establish a special school district based on the [state Senate Majority Leader] Mark Morris bill."
    Senate Bill 25 calls for a three-year transition period if Memphis voters approve the merger. A 21-member commission will then be empowered to plan an orderly transition. The legislation also gives SCS the green light to establish a special school district, which MCS board members tried to circumvent when they voted 5 to 4 on Dec. 20 to surrender the charter.
    MCS is funded by the city, county, state and federal government. Malone said county residents are afraid they'll miss out on some of that revenue. "If you live in Memphis, you're paying taxes twice for education. You're paying a part of your property taxes for MCS and a part of your property taxes for SCS."
   Jesse Jeff, a city school teacher and security director for MEA, said at the opening of CBE that he's for one school system, one police department, one fire department, and one mayor. "I will continue to fight for my community to be a metropolitan area," he vowed.
   Martavious Jones said he took a leap of faith when he proposed the charter surrender. "I regret that I didn't take it a long time ago, because I see that we are going to control our fate and our destiny collectively." 
   "If we don't win, it will be bad for us," Malone said.


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