MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — City voters chose Tuesday to dissolve the Memphis school system and force the county — whose students are accustomed to much more success in the wealthier suburbs — to take over its education.
With all 185 precincts reporting, about 67 percent of voters approved the furiously debated referendum to disband, while 33 percent voted against.
It means voters have confirmed the city school board’s decision to combine with Shelby County schools. It comes despite strong opposition against the merger among the suburban communities. Only city residents decided the issue, which angered county officials.
Still, a tally of the ballots doesn’t provide a final answer to what happens next to the city’s underperforming schools and its 103,000 students. A new state law and federal lawsuit are intended to slow down any merger that would result in a system of 150,000 students with the county in charge.
A transition team will be assembled to oversee the consolidation process and the county school board will be expanded from the current seven members to 25.
More than 41,000 people cast a vote on an overcast and rainy day. Including absentee and early ballots, about 71,000 voters, or 17 percent, decided the issue, a low turnout considering the intense debate surrounding the merger. About 422,000 people are eligible to vote within the city limits, said Richard Holden, administrator of elections for Shelby County. The vote should be certified within three weeks.
Regardless of turnout, the outcome is pivotal for the future of Memphis’ troubled school system. The months-long discussion ahead of the vote stirred emotions in the county of 920,000 people.
“I’m pleased with the outcome, but the real work only now begins,” said Martavius Jones, the Memphis City Schools board member who has been one of the leaders of the merger effort. “This is still our opportunity to rebuild the education of every child in Shelby County.”
Opponents of the merger denied racism allegations. Some in Memphis claim the majority-white county system does not want to accept students from the majority-black city system.
The cash-strapped city school board last December surrendered its charter and turned over control to Shelby County, which operates public schools in the western Tennessee city’s suburbs.
Supporters of the merger said it’s necessary to prevent Shelby County from seeking school special district status. It would draw a boundary around the county system and cut into tax money that currently goes to city schools.
“If we could just consolidate, get rid of two school boards, two superintendents, and consolidate into one, perhaps we could also improve our school system, which is not working very well,” said voter Pam Haithcock, 54.
Opponents argued the move was made without planning, and could stretch resources to the point that jobs could be cut and schools could close.
“There should have been a better plan put forth,” said voter Regina Woods, 54. “All the confusion that is going on right now, that persuaded me to say no. … There’s a whole bunch of things coming at you at one time. It’s like a virus on your computer.”
State lawmakers stepped into the fray, as well. In a few days, Republican lawmakers passed and the governor enacted a law that delays the merger for three years.
A diverse group of Memphis-area ministers came out in support of consolidation.
Local union chapters and a separate contingent of Memphis-area religious leaders spoke out against the merger. Shelby County School Board Chairman David Pickler and other county leaders also oppose consolidation.
Pickler said the turnout was disappointing.
“That really speaks to the larger problem endemic within this community of people not being fully engaged and not truly committed to the education future of our community,” Pickler said.
Pickler also said that the federal lawsuit challenging the authority of the Memphis school board to disband is still very much alive.