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VOL. 126 | NO. 28 | Thursday, February 10, 2011

Next Schools Step Murky After Thursday Vote

By Bill Dries

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In the Tennessee General Assembly, everything comes down to votes sooner or later.

And whether it’s sooner or later depends on how long the debate takes.

The votes appear to be there Thursday in the state House to send the legislation to the still uncluttered desk of new governor Bill Haslam.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. conceded that Tuesday.

“It’s certain to pass the House. The way things appear now, I’m sure it will,” Wharton said. “And it will end up on (Haslam’s) desk. I don’t envy the position he’s going to be in. I will, at the appropriate time, talk with him about that.”

Haslam is a Republican governor with Republican majorities and leadership in both houses of the legislature. A veto of the first bill fast-tracked to his desk by those majorities would not be a good start for the relationship.

Haslam was due to host legislators from across the state Wednesday morning for a breakfast at the Governor’s residence.

Wharton had talked of some changes to the proposal last week.

But he hasn’t had any talks about that since with Haslam or Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville, the author of the legislation.

Norris amended the legislation when it was introduced in committee last week. The amendments did not challenge the citywide March 8 referendum on the Memphis City Schools charter surrender. It made the path to schools consolidation longer and excluded the Memphis mayor from having any appointments to the planning commission that would set the terms for the schools merger.

Wharton wanted a shorter transition period of a year and a half instead of two-and-a-half years, and he wanted to make some appointments to the 21-member planning commission. Haslam has told Wharton he won’t immediately sign the bill without giving city leaders the chance to talk to him about their problems with the legislation.

“That was the commitment we sought,” Wharton said. “That was the commitment he gave the (Memphis City) Council.”

Passage of the bill Thursday could prompt council members to ratify the surrender of the MCS charter. Some council members believe that would immediately consolidate the two school systems without requiring a referendum.

But the council’s attorney, Allan Wade, has said that belief is on shaky legal ground. Regardless, Wade added, the March 8 referendum would go forward even with such a council action because the dates and other terms of having the referendum were established in a Chancery Court order.

Wharton has concerns about such a council action even with the Chancery Court order preserving the referendum.

“Even if it were for only 12 hours until somebody could get to the courthouse, what would happen to the legal affairs of Memphis City Schools?” he asked earlier this month.

That would be answered by adding a more substantial step requiring the cooperation of the Shelby County school system.

“There’s an old law on the books that allows the city government to step in and sign a contract with the county school system in the event of the demise, whether it’s by surrender or otherwise, of a city school board,” Wharton said of the legal options he is considering as the next act in a drama that so far has been lighter on court action than anticipated.

The council action has other risks that have more to do with perception.

When Norris’s proposal included the participation of county voters outside Memphis in a referendum, council members and other critics of the bill focused on what they said was an attempt to dilute or veto the votes of Memphians.

It was one of several references Norris made on the Senate floor this week to the local political machinations of the sprawling controversy.

“I understand the city council may dissolve the Memphis district before her own citizens have the opportunity to vote,” Norris said from the well of the Senate just before the chamber’s vote.

“And if they do, it will be them, not us, depriving citizens of their right to self-determination.”

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