msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/8/2011 11:21:36 PM ET 2011-03-09T04:21:36

Voters in Memphis have approved disbanding the city's school system and forcing the county to take over its education.

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With all 185 precincts reporting Tuesday night, about 67 percent of voters approved the referendum to dissolve the Memphis City Schools system, while about 33 percent voted against the measure.

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About 71,000 of 422,000 registered Memphis voters, or about 17 percent, cast a ballot in the election, a low turnout considering the heated discussion surrounding the schools merger issue.

Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton spoke positively about what the surrender would mean for the city and county, NBC station WMC reported.

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"It's not a time to celebrate because the rough part of the journey just begins," Wharton said. "There might be some choppy seas and some rough air, but in the end, once this is all done, I think we'll be a stronger city and county as a result of this."

The cash-strapped Memphis City Schools board voted last December to surrender its charter and turn over control to the more successful Shelby County system, which includes public schools outside the city limits.

Opponents argue that the move was made without planning, and could stretch resources to the point that jobs could be cut.

A diverse group of Memphis-area ministers came out in support of consolidation, while local union chapters and a separate contingent of Memphis-area religious leaders opposed the merger.

The move was prompted by city school board members, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported.

The state Legislature's Republican majority would grant the all-suburban Shelby County Schools special school district status, which city board member Martavius Jones, a financial adviser, said could lead to education taxes rising in Memphis while falling in the suburbs.

Surrendering the city schools charter effectively will lead to the consolidation of the city and suburban schools.

Memphis City Council chairman Myron Lowery said on Tuesday: “I voted equal opportunity for all the students in Shelby County. They should all be afforded the same opportunity for advancement under a unified school system.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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