MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A bold bid by the struggling, majority-black Memphis City Schools system to force a merger with the majority-white, successful suburban district has fanned relatively routine fears over funding and student performance into accusations of full-blown racism.
The fight over the fate of 150,000 public school students has stirred long-festering emotions in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County, creating a drama that has spread beyond school board meetings to union rallies, the state Legislature and federal court.
On March 8, Memphis voters will decide whether to approve disbanding the city schools system and turning education over to the county district, which is earning good grades on its own and doing everything it can to stave off consolidation.
Memphis resident and school cafeteria worker Mary Washington questioned why Memphis schools would even want to give over its students to a system that doesn't want them.
"It's just like you losing your freedom going into bondage," Washington, who is black, said after an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees meeting. "In the background, in the foreground, it is about race."
David Pickler, the white Shelby County School Board chairman, bristles at such claims.
"To say that we don't want someone because of the color of their skin to me is the most offensive thing someone can say to me," Pickler said.
Regardless of the motives, it's a pivotal time in the history of Memphis: Jobs, education quality and school closings hang in the balance.
There's also a growing feeling among some parents and students that the children are being ignored as adults make power plays and political moves.
The Memphis City Schools board voted last December to surrender its charter and turn over control to Shelby County's system, which includes public schools outside the city limits.
The spark for the schools consolidation fight began smoldering on Election Day last November, when Republicans took control of the state Legislature and saw Republican Bill Haslam win the governor's race. Shelby County's Republican politicians finally saw their chance to forever block a merger by securing special school district status.
The special status would draw a boundary around the Shelby County school district, protecting its autonomy and tax base — and, according to Jones, taking $100 million a year from the already underfunded Memphis schools system.
"We're already a divided community in terms of racial polarization," said Tom Word, who is white and a parent of three children in Memphis public schools. "That would further exacerbate that division."
Memphis school board member Martavius Jones launched the charter surrender effort to get out in front of any effort by Shelby County to fence off its schools from the city.
Memphis schools began integrating in 1961 without the violence other Southern cities endured. White parents instead left the city for the suburbs or put their children in private schools, effectively re-segregating education into a mostly black city system and a largely white suburban system.
The 2010-2011 budget for Memphis City Schools is about $890 million to cover 103,000 students, 85 percent of whom are black. For the 47,000-student Shelby County system, which is 38 percent black, it's more than $363 million.
Nicole Scott, 37, lives in the upscale suburb of Germantown and has three children in the Shelby County schools. Scott, who is white, says fears a merger will diminish quality in the public schools her children now attend and suggests the white flight that desegregation created will happen again.
"If the quality begins to decrease," Scott said as she supervised a Girl Scout cookie sale at a shopping center, "we will consider other options" for places to live.
"The mere act of merging the two really provides no education value, but not merging the two ... that provides educational harm for our students," Jones said.
The Memphis City Council accepted the charter surrender Feb. 10, dissolving the board.
State and federal governments quickly entered the fight. Within days, Republican lawmakers passed and the governor enacted a law that delays the merger for three years.
Pickler, who has asked a federal judge to invalidate the Memphis school board's decision to disband, says it's unfair that county voters will not be allowed to vote March 8. He says absorbing the Memphis system, which earned D's and F's from the state in important categories last year, would hurt academics in the county system, which received all A's.
Pickler also argues the creation of one huge district will overstretch resources, possibly leading to job cuts among nontenured teachers, janitors and cafeteria workers. Schools that are operating under capacity could be closed.
City council chairman Myron Lowery, a prominent African-American official, invoked the language of segregation in describing what he thinks opponents of the merger want: "Separate but equal."
While adults fight a power battle, students like Nyree Smith are wondering about their future. She said young people are unfairly excluded from the process, and suggested including a student on the transition oversight team the new state law creates.
"This is a big issue, give us some facts, let us know what's going on," said Smith, a 16-year-old black junior at Middle College High School.
She supports a merger because she says it will give Memphis students like her better educational opportunities and she's disappointed that some so strongly oppose that.
"Somewhere in the mix, race plays a huge role," Smith said.