Q: How would school unification work?
A: A referendum would take place throughout Memphis some time in February. If a majority of those voting vote YES, unification would occur.
Q: Would suburban voters outside Memphis be able to vote in the referendum?
A: No. State law established Memphis City Schools (MCS) as a special school district within the City only, and only residents of Memphis can vote in the referendum. (Efforts by the Republican-controlled Shelby County Election Commission to change this have no legal basis.)
Q: If the referendum passes, what happens then?
A: A unified school board will then be chosen to govern the new unified school district.
Q: Would a YES vote mean Memphis schools will be run indefinitely by the Shelby County School Board and the Shelby County Schools Administration?
A: No. Those bodies would be in operational control for only a very brief time, until the County Commission could act to appoint unified school board members or set up a special election. See below.
Q: Could Shelby County Schools use its brief “operational control” period to harm Memphis teachers or students—e.g., abolishing union contracts, eliminating the optional program, etc.?
A: Not likely. First, its operational control period would likely be too brief to accomplish such sweeping changes. Second, the Shelby County Schools Administration would not likely be motivated to do so, knowing that its soon-to-be-boss, the new unified school board, would almost certainly oppose such radical changes. (See below). Third, even if it did so, the new unified school board would almost certainly undo such changes once it took office.
Q: Do we know how this new unified school board would be chosen?
A: Pretty much. There are state statutes dealing with similar situations which establish
transition procedures for newly united school boards formed under different circumstances, and also for drawing districts to elect school board members when court decisions require school board redistricting. The County Attorney has stated that similar procedures would most likely apply in our situation as well.
Q: So how would the new unified school board be chosen, then?
A: The County Commission would draw a unified school district districting plan (see TCA 49-2-111) to elect either 5, 7, or 9 members. It could then choose to (a) have a special election within a few months, electing school board members either at-large, from single-member districts, or a combination of the two. OR, it could choose to (b) arrange for interim unified school board members to be appointed by the City Council and the County Commission (depending on whether the districts were mostly in Memphis or mostly outside Memphis). (See TCA 49-2-1202). 3
Q: Would this unified school board adequately represent Memphians and African-Americans?
A: Yes. Seven of the 13 County Commissioners come from Memphis-only districts, and 3 more come from districts which are majority-Memphis. Six of the 13 members are African-American, and 7 are Democrats. There is no reason to expect they would use their appointment or redistricting authority to do anything but fairly reflect black and Memphian voting strength.
Q: How can we be sure the County Commission won’t use its power to dilute the voting strength of African-Americans, or Memphians, or suburban voters, for that matter?
A: Any redistricting scheme which failed to fairly reflect such demographics would be
challengeable in court under state and federal law.
Q: Who would run the school system if the voters voted YES? Who would serve as the
A: The Shelby County Schools Superintendent would serve as Superintendent for a brief
transition period, until the new unified school board could be appointed or elected. Once the new unified school board was sworn in, it could then choose to retain or replace that
Q: What has been the experience of similar jurisdictions which have consolidated an urban school system with the county school system?
A: The closest analogy is Chattanooga, which merged with Hamilton County in 1997. A 2006 Education Week academic article praised it as a success which “went off without any substantial hitch” and led to education improvements. A 2007 Annenberg Policy Institute report detailed specific reforms, like increasing college attendance and improving high school academic rigor through the creation of theme-based high school “academies,” which occurred in the years following consolidation.
And a recent Chattanooga Free Press editorial supported Memphis school merger,
stating it would help to reverse the City-County, black-white division in Memphis. Re: its own merger, it said:
But the evidence here confirms that the merger has focused more effective attention on student performance in urban schools. Efforts to improve teaching standards, raise school test scores and graduation rates, and programs involving magnet schools and minority-to-majority transfers have improved achievement countywide and insured fairer focus on children and schools previously left behind.