By SAM DILLON, The New York Times
Published: November 5, 2011
MEMPHIS — When thousands of white students abandoned the Memphis schools 38 years ago rather than attend classes with blacks under a desegregation plan fueled by busing, Joseph A. Clayton went with them. He quit his job as a public school principal to head an all-white private school and later won election to the board of the mostly white suburban district next door.
Now, as the overwhelmingly black Memphis school district is being dissolved into the majority-white Shelby County schools, Mr. Clayton is on the new combined 23-member school board overseeing the marriage. And he warns that the pattern of white flight could repeat itself, with the suburban towns trying to secede and start their own districts.
“There’s the same element of fear,” said Mr. Clayton, 79. “In the 1970s, it was a physical, personal fear. Today the fear is about the academic decline of the Shelby schools.”
“As far as racial trust goes,” Mr. Clayton, who is white, added, “I don’t think we’ve improved much since the 1970s.”
The merger — a result of actions by the Memphis school board and City Council, a March referendum and a federal court order — is the largest school district consolidation in American history and poses huge logistical challenges. Memphis teachers are unionized, Shelby County’s are not; the county owns its yellow buses, the city relies on a contractor; and the two districts use different textbooks and different systems to evaluate teachers.
Toughest of all may be bridging the chasms of race and class. Median family income in Memphis is $32,000 a year, compared with the suburban average of $92,000; 85 percent of students in Memphis are black, compared with 38 percent in Shelby County.
But Kenya Bradshaw, who was recently elected secretary of a separate 21-member commission set up to recommend policies for combining the new districts, sees the merger as a chance for Memphis “to re-envision its educational system.”
“I hope people can see that this is an opportunity to reflect on our history and not make the same mistakes,” said Ms. Bradshaw, an advocate for educational equity, who is black. “If people are leaving for reasons that they don’t want their children to be around children of color or children who are poor, then I say to them, ‘I bid you farewell.’ ”
Though race has become the elephant in the room, the process actually began last winter as a struggle over finances.
Shelby County includes Memphis and six incorporated suburbs to its north and east. Tax money from the entire county is distributed to the two districts based on student population. Memphis, with 103,000 students, compared with 47,000 in the county, gets more of the money, though the suburbs contribute more per capita.
Fearing that suburban politicians and Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature might alter this arrangement to allow more tax money to stay in the suburbs, Memphis voted in December to surrender the school charter. Multiple lawsuits ensued, and a federal judge ruled on Sept. 28 that the two districts would be governed by a unified board but would run separately for two years, and then would combine in 2013.
In the mid-1960s, Memphis had about 130,000 students, nearly equally split among whites and blacks, in segregated schools. Efforts to desegregate were met with subterfuge and delay, said Daniel Kiel, a University of Memphis law professor who has written about the topic.
Federally ordered busing in 1973 provoked white flight, with about 40,000 of the system’s 71,000 white students abandoning the system in four years.
More recently, the suburbs have diversified, as middle-class black families left behind an impoverished central city. But the Shelby school board remained all white, and much of the system still seems segregated. Collierville High School, outside Memphis, was 82 percent white last year, while Southwind High, 10 miles away, also outside the city limits, was 94 percent black.
As for the city, Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College, said that he had hoped to compare student achievement among middle class and impoverished schools, but that he could not.
“There are no middle-class black schools in Memphis,” he said. “They’re all poor.”
Despite the current inequality, nobody expects the demographics of schools to change much, because most students in both districts are assigned to neighborhood schools and housing tends to be segregated.
That has not changed the minds of people like Mr. Clayton, who told The New York Times in 1975 that he had left the public schools because of mounting chaos caused by desegregation.
Mr. Clayton, who was the principal of two traditionally white Memphis high schools from 1964 to 1973, won election in 1998 to the Shelby County school board, where he and his colleagues were shocked when the Memphis board first voted for the merger.
“We all tried to figure out how to stop it,” he said.
They have not given up. The legislature passed a law in February that, as of September 2013, lifts a prohibition on the formation of autonomous school districts, and five of the six Shelby County suburbs have hired consultants to study the finances of breaking away.
For now, the two new boards are trying to combine the districts, which, improbably, have both long had their headquarters in a rambling office building in central Memphis. A corridor linking the two wings of the building has, for years, had double-locked doors whose glass panels are covered with particle board.
“This is our Berlin Wall,” said Irving Hamer, Memphis’s deputy superintendent.
Billy Orgel, a telecommunications executive who was elected president of the merged school board, asked officials of both districts to break down the barricade. “We need both systems’ employees to see each other, work together and become not just colleagues but friends,” he said.
Mr. Orgel said the doors had been opened, but a few days later, people in the building said they were still locked.