Nobody, at least in the media, has given much attention as to why the Memphis City Schools rebuilt Douglass High School. It couldn’t have been due to necessity, since I doubt that Northside, Manassas, Raleigh-Egypt or Kingsbury High Schools were full by any stretch of the imagination. For once, it couldn’t have been about race, since all of these other schools are predominantly-Black also. It couldn’t have been about growth in the Douglass neighborhood, since that neighborhood has been in steady decline since the 1970s, and the original Douglass High School was closed due to low and declining enrollment. This new school becomes even more suspicious when we notice that the district has been closing schools in recent years, having closed South Side High School, the city’s second-oldest high school just last year. The best I can determine is that pressure to build the new school came from two quarters-the powerful, national Douglass Alumni Association, which consists of a number of successful people in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and other cities who wanted their alma mater rebuilt, and redevelopment people who apparently believe in the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy that the great new school building will jumpstart rehabilitation of the Douglass neighborhood. All of this wouldn’t be so annoying were it not for the fact that the pricetag for this speculative venture is around 8 million dollars of the taxpayers money, for an 800-student, racially-segregated high school in a school district that is about to terminate 140 teachers because it is so financially-strapped. How many of their salaries could have been paid for the next five years with $8 million? The superintendent and school board need to rethink their priorities and stop giving into political pressure. Smaller class sizes in the schools that exist now makes a lot more sense than building new ones, no matter how popular the new ones may be.
The problem with the Memphis City Schools is not that the school board is elected. The problem is not that this elected board chose a superintendent. The problem is not even that some members of that board felt that the primary qualification of the new superintendent should be Black skin. The problem is not simply money, although that is part of it. Even if Mayor Herenton got his way, and now had the right to appoint both the school board and its superintendent, and even if an anonymous donor gave or willed a billion dollars to the Memphis district, we would be faced with the fact that the Memphis City Schools, being nearly all-Black, cannot prepare its students for a world that is increasingly diverse. Add to that the problem of crumbling, outdated buildings and Memphis’ declining tax base, and you get a recipe for educational and social disaster. There is an answer far better than Herenton’s power grab, and it is simple. There should be only one school system in Shelby County, and it should be the Shelby County Schools. Memphis will never again have the tax base to adequately fund a large, urban school system, and even if it could, it is unfair to African-American children to shunt them off into all-Black, segregated schools, even under the pretense of separate school districts or “neighborhood schools.” Just because the neighborhoods are in awful shape should not consign the young people there to a hopeless future. It is time to put responsible people in charge of all public education in Shelby County and to start worrying about children and not politics or skin color. For those who constantly worry about race, it happens to be Black children who are bearing the brunt of the leaders’ irresponsibility. If we don’t do something soon, our whole region faces a very dark future.