“About time for suburbs to chant ‘Told you so’ to doubters of municipal school districts,” reads a headline from The Commercial Appeal column “Outside the Loop.”
The column points to several success stories from the six districts that pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014, especially the new school buildings going up in the growing districts.
But the column’s focus on how the districts overcame opposition leaves out important context — and some readers took issue with measuring success in infrastructure without taking into account how the exodus affected the urban school district left behind.
“The Commercial Appeal measures success by the number of buildings built, not the real harm done to children across the community, so by that measure, suburban schools are a success,” Wendi C. Thomas, a longtime Memphis journalist, said in a Facebook post linking to the column.
The columnist, Clay Bailey, who is also a reporter covering Bartlett and other suburban areas, wrote:
“And whether naysayers agree with the enabling legislation creating municipal districts or court rulings opening the way or agreements that secured the bulk of the campuses within the suburban boundaries, the districts are preparing to start their fourth school year after secession from Shelby County Schools.
And quite successfully, despite the resistance from outside forces.”
There were many questions and concerns following the pullout of those six districts. But those largely focused on how the “de-merger” would affect the large school district left behind — not whether or not the more wealthy suburbs could financially make it on their own.
The suburban districts believed they could in part because there is more tax revenue concentrated in the suburbs.
That’s been a flashpoint for years. In recent decades, as property values increased in the suburbs, legacy Shelby County Schools — the now-nonexistent suburban district that included the six municipalities — was sending more and more of its revenue to Memphis schools, irking suburban officials who sought a way to keep those dollars local.
Their solution was to create a new, special school district — which prompted city school leaders to give up their charter to merge with the suburban district, and then the six districts to secede in response.
And though Shelby County Schools is headed into a new era of relative financial stability, district leaders still say the six-district pullout is one of many factors that have chipped away at resources available to the schools left behind.
That’s the history. More recently, the six municipal school districts were recently cast into the national spotlight as the “most egregious example” of more wealthy mostly white suburban districts seceding from urban districts of poorer minority students in a national report in June.
Bailey’s column faced some tough criticism online.
“Of course a segregated district is thriving,” said activist and educator Tami Sawyer in a Facebook post linking to the article. “Don’t act like y’all won the academic bowl. You’re thriving because due to white privilege you removed yourself from the ‘urban’ district and yet still get windfall from being formerly connected. Not to mention, no one was naysayers in the vein of thinking it couldn’t be done. They were naysayers in saying this is racially motivated and wrong.”
The triumphant tone from the reporter who regularly covers municipalities for the local newspaper did not sit will with Mark Hansen, chairman of the Collierville school board.
The column also drew praise from members of a few Facebook groups dedicated to discussing suburban school issues.
Bailey declined to comment.
Correction, Aug. 4, 2017: A previous version of this story said Clay Bailey is an editor overseeing suburban coverage. As of March, Bailey was no longer an editor.