Posted on November 9, 2011

Merger of Memphis and County School Districts Revives Race and Class Challenges

Sam Dillon, New York Times, November 5, 2011

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. {snip}


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.


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.


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.