"I'm not surprised by the lawsuit. However, I was shocked by the language. The lawsuit needs to be based on constitutional merits and not on race. Additionally, state law allows for these special elections. They should be held as planned."
– Mark H. Luttrell Jr., Shelby County Mayor
The headline on the news release from the office of Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. declared that he disagreed with the lawsuit that the County Commission filed to block municipal school elections.
If given the face-to-face chance, some who have read the 6-paragraph release announcing Luttrell's stance would have asked, "What were you thinking?"
The New Tri-State Defender on Tuesday took advantage of a sit-down opportunity with Luttrell, who was open to explaining his thought pattern. For Luttrell, any such conversation has to start with context.
The whole education question now facing Memphis and Shelby County is probably "the issue of our generation," he said. "We are in the process of transforming an education system that has been in existence for over 100 years. And we're transforming it really by going against the national trend."
That "progressive" trend, he said, is to take large systems and break them down into smaller systems. "We've taken two larger systems and created an even larger system. That bothers me."
Still, he accepts living with the structure that's in place. That includes the Transition Planning Commission (TPC) that has been put in place to recommend how to structure a combined Memphis City Schools-Shelby County Schools system. He calls the TPC, of which he is a member, "a progressive step."
The TPC provided an opportunity to slow down in the midst of a highly-pitched debate about the future of education, get cooler heads at the table, look comprehensively and try to come up with a well-reasoned and thought out plan for a 150,000 student potential system, he said.
The TPC has tried to break down the issue of bigness, pushing a proposal that talks of six districts or regions that would be more manageable, said Luttrell, who is strong supporter of that approach. He envisions, ultimately, several different approaches to education in the local area, including a unified school system (the largest), charter schools, achievement schools (lower-performing schools run by the state), private schools, municipal schools and home schools.
It's a paradigm shift and not all bad, he said. "Our objective has got to be how do we raise the standard of education for our children."
Lawsuits along the way are not surprising, he said, picking up on a theme in the news release his office issued on June 27. And "friendly lawsuits" often can provide clarity, he added.
"I took exception to that lawsuit (filed by the County Commission last week). It was the tone and tenor, the racial overtones. There are many, many questions that can be answered that would clarify and clear up some of the concerns that we have. But the lawsuit took as fact certain racial, discriminatory actions, or what they perceive as racially discriminatory," he said, saying the suit should be focused on the constitutional issues of equal protection.
"To say that our legislature was racially motivated, to say that municipalities are racially motivated is conjecture at this point."
Race is "without a doubt an issue in our community," said Luttrell. "To loosely throw the term racism around runs the risk of really inflaming this issue beyond just the question of constitutional standard."
The "unintended consequences of actions" is worthy of debate, Luttrell said.
With some arguing that a move to smaller districts within the unified school system could lead to homogenous districts that would deny students the opportunity to learn in integrated settings, Luttrell said, "That would be an argument worthy of making, but to say that we are moving that way for racial reasons, I am really starting to take issue.
"To say this was done because of your desire to create a homogenous system, I think that is a stretch at this point when you can make legal arguments that are valid."
So, what then is Luttrell's focus?
"In an environment that is racially charged to begin with, unless we have definitive evidence that race was indeed a factor – and they don't present any definitive evidence (in the lawsuit), I say stay focused on the unintended consequences of actions and let's litigate that."
The schools' issue has been racially tinged, meaning racially motivated, on both sides for a while, said Luttrell, emphasizing again that he wants to concentrate on creating the best school system possible. The crucial facts are that we are below the state standards in everything from graduation rates to dropout rates to achievement rates at various plateaus, he said.
"We need to be focused on creating a system that addresses getting more people through high school and getting people college-ready, having our children enter the first grade ready, and we are not meeting those standards now."
Still, some clearly are unsettled by his position as announced in last week's release, and the mayor was reminded that he did not have to make a statement. Why did he decide that he needed to do so?
"I feel strongly that if we are not careful, this whole issue is going to divide our community along racial lines and I am trying as best I can to keep us focused on the work of the Transition Planning Commission, which is a very fact-based proposal that we are trying now to persuade the school board that it is a viable plan. We are trying to get a dollar figure attached to it to see what it is going to cost us and move it into deliberations in County Commission. It is diversionary to get off into what we are talking about now."
Yes, it's possible that his efforts could have the opposite effect of what he intends, said Luttrell.
"I could remain silent on something I feel passionate about or I could get in and try to steer this thing back to the center," he said, "where we stayed focused on the issues of creating a good school system and how we are going to go about affording that school system."