Opinion: Separate school systems allow choice in pandemic

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 05, 2020 9:37 AM CT | Published: August 05, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Clay Bailey
Daily Memphian

Clay Bailey

Clay Bailey, a lifelong Memphian, has worked as a reporter in the city four decades. He concentrated on suburban coverage for the bulk of his career, except for a stint as sports editor of The Daily Memphian when it launched in September 2018. He now is suburban editor and also serves as a freelance sports writer for The Associated Press.

They started lining up early. A steady stream of parents who wanted their voices heard and their opinions considered when Collierville contemplated how to open schools for the 2020-21 academic year.

Some held earlier protests to express their views; others were filing into the Pickler Auditorium at Collierville High a week ago to make sure the town’s Board of Education considered an array of thoughts about school in the midst of a pandemic.

Most suburban high schools moving ahead with sports

But this isn’t about a right or wrong decision for starting classes in a suburban district or Shelby County Schools. There is plenty of evidence around to support either route that emerges. After all, Dr. Jon McCullers, one of the local pediatric leaders of the COVID-19 study, said last week there are no good answers to this.

This is more about local representation in the municipal districts — decisions and deliberations made in a small environment targeted at those specific districts. This is a key reason the suburbs wanted their own districts. So, they would have a significant voice in decisions.

It’s a far cry from what would have been the case if the suburbs were still part of the Shelby County Schools district.

And, while there were other reasons for suburbs to start their own school districts — some of them perceived as undermining the overall county system — one thing is certain: The six outlying cities in Shelby County together would not have had anything near the voice in a countywide system that they do making decisions for their individual municipalities.

You see, when there was talk about a countywide system some seven years ago, the Shelby County Schools district included not only Memphis, but all parts of Shelby County from Bolton to Southwind and Westwood to Millington.

And each individual suburb was never destined to get an individual representative on the countywide board. On the contrary, the six suburbs wouldn’t have enough votes to carry any measure on their own. While that was fair given the overall breadth of the county, the outlying officials wanted more of a say in the decisions affecting schools in their city limits.

Collierville offers 5 days of in-person instruction for elementary students

And, yes, there were other reasons — some considered nefarious by those outside the suburbs. Some critics viewed the move as a widening of the racial disparity between the predominantly white suburban districts and the mostly African American SCS district.

This is not to debate that point. There are plenty of opinions to choose sides on that argument.

But, going to separate districts did leave the six Shelby County cities outside the Memphis borders with the ability to make decisions regarding their individual districts. Such as how and when and what protocols are needed to open schools.

For example, Collierville tweaked its plans for class attendance again last weekend, a move by Superintendent Gary Lilly under the direction of the Collierville School Board. And other decisions will accompany the continued uncertainty of the pandemic, such as Monday’s announcements by most of the municipal districts to move forward with fall sports.

I am not saying SCS Superintendent Joris Ray doesn’t have the same authority. He has made similar decisions for the benefit of the county district.

But those decisions for students across the county may not be the same as the ones for the individual districts outside of SCS. It recalls the belief that all statewide decisions aren’t always in the best interest of West Tennessee.

Shelby County data is the same, local school districts are not

The pandemic presents everyone with unique and unprecedented options. No district has ever decided such matters, including how to get students back to class. And, goodness, this is a far cry from March when the potential for disease spread kept students from returning to classes after Spring Break.

“So, there are no good choices, there are no good options,” county Mayor Lee Harris said last week. “What you can do is try as best you can to understand the data, make informed decisions and trust the leadership.

“And so, we’re trusting and deferring to the leadership of the school districts to come forward with plans that they think are safe and responsible for helping and supporting kids and families.”

There may not be a “one-size-fits-all” direction to take in this. In the end, the plans could look similar. But at least the various districts from SCS to Arlington Community Schools can consider the varieties that benefit their respective systems.


Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray suburban school districts


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