Bartlett Mayor A. Keith McDonald has spent the last several years fighting for local control of his city’s schools.
Given Bartlett’s size — the municipality is the largest suburb in Shelby County — McDonald has become something of a advocate for the communities working to separate from the merged Shelby County school system. “I said early on, this is a sword I’m willing to die on politically,” he told us today. “My reputation is on the line here? So be it.”
An insurance executive who began his political career as an alderman in Bartlett, McDonald also served on Shelby County’s Transition Planning Commission, which paved the path to merging Memphis city schools with suburbs like Bartlett.
Here are 10 more things to know about McDonald.
1. He cares about Memphis, but his top priority is Bartlett.
Residents of Memphis, he said, need to remember that the city is just one of seven municipalities in Shelby County. “They keep saying, ‘You oughtta be worried about us.’ Well, sure, I’m worried,” he said.
But as the mayor of Bartlett, he said, he needs to put his community first.
He compared the situation to the safety speech airline attendants give before every flight. In an emergency, passengers are supposed to put their own oxygen mask on first — even before helping the person next to you. Similarly, in Bartlett, he said, “We have to help ourselves first,” he said. “And then we’ll be able to help Memphis.”
2. His concerns with the merged county school system have nothing to do with race.
Here’s what happened to the last reporter who asked McDonald if his efforts were racially motivated: The reporter, Ernie Freeman of My Fox Memphis, was “race-baiting me,” McDonald said. So McDonald threw him out of his City Hall office. (We reached out to Freeman today for comment but didn’t immediately hear back.)
One piece of McDonald’s argument is that Bartlett is more diverse than many people assume. “If you think this is all white-bread, you haven’t been here in a while,” he said. He pointed to the latest 2010 Census data, which show that 79% of the city is white, compared to 92% in 2000.
He also challenged anyone who would suggest he himself is prejudiced. “I have African American godchildren that were adopted by my very best friends,” he said.
The real schism, he suggested, isn’t race but class. “Middle class people regardless of race want the same thing,”well, people want the same thing…That’s a great education, a safe place for children, affordable housing, parks and good police and fire departments.”
“Well,” he concluded, “Bartlett’s a place where they can have it.”
3. What he’s really concerned with is the size of the school district and local control.
His main concern, McDonald said, is that “smaller educational units historically do better.” He pointed to “mega districts,” like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where he said larger size has caused challenges for schools. (The second-largest district in North Caroline, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has weathered calls from some residents to break the system into smaller parts.)
What McDonald favors is “local control,” he said. “When people can get a hold of the decision-makers and hold them accountable, [schools] do better.”
4. He would be happy for Bartlett to take in students who live outside Bartlett, but he doesn’t think that will happen.
McDonald said that he would happily keep the students now zoned for Bartlett schools who don’t live in Bartlett, allowing the students to remain inside a new Bartlett school district’s zone. But he said that he expects Shelby County school board officials to demand taking those students back. After all, the students carry with them precious per-pupil funding from the state.
“It’s going to turn out to be just Bartlett kids,” he said.
5. He favors spending only part of the revenues collected from Bartlett’s half-cent sales tax on education. And so far, the revenues are mainly going to pay legal bills.
As officials predicted back in January, McDonald said that last year’s half-cent sales tax has generated $3.6 million. Of that total, McDonald said he is committing only a portion to schools — starting with the legal bills Bartlett has racked up recently.
McDonald said he doesn’t want to promise that all tax revenues will go directly to a new school board because of the “maintenance of effort” requirement for Tennessee school districts. The requirement mandates that districts keep funding for schools at a constant level. If Bartlett were to give all the tax revenue to schools one year, and then the next year sales tax revenues dipped, then the city would have to find new revenue to avoid trouble from the state, McDonald said.
6. Bartlett has already contracted with a search firm to find a new superintendent.
McDonald said Bartlett is working with a consulting firm called Southern Educational Strategies to help navigate the transition to opening a new school district. The group has already contracted with a search firm to begin looking for candidates for superintendent of Bartlett, he said.
The firm’s goal is to have three viable candidates to present to a new school board once it’s put into place this December, McDonald said.
7. He has no interest in being Bartlett’s superintendent.
“I have grandchildren that are gonna be in the system. I want it to be great,” he said. “But I am not qualified to be the superintendent.”
He compared the process of letting go of his control over education in Bartlett — which will elect a new school board next month — to his experience as a foster parent. Each time he handed a child over to children to their new permanent family, McDonald felt sad. But he knew the outcome was best for the child.
The same applies to education, he said. “I’m gonna still feel some separation anxiety, but I know my place,” he said.
8. He’s not anti-charter school.
McDonald said he’s impressed by the work charter school operators from around the country have done to gain a foothold in Tennessee. Walking around the capitol last session, he saw the halls filled with charter school operators.
McDonald said he’s not opposed to charters himself. “What I want is good quality education, and I think it comes in lots of different forms,” he said. He mentioned private schools, district-run schools, and charters — as long as they do a good job, he said, he’s in favor of them.
9. He is suspicious of the $52 million figure Shelby County school officials are citing as how much Shelby County schools stand to lose when municipalities like Bartlett separate.
During a board retreat last week, Interim Chief Financial Officer Alicia Lindsey told the school board the district could lose more than 30,000 students and up to $52.6 million if all six municipalities were formed by next school year, according to The Commercial Appeal.
McDonald said that figure doesn’t take into account a loss in expenses to match the loss in revenue from students who leave.
“They haven’t told the whole story,” McDonald said.
Additional reporting by Daarel Burnette II.