Haslam In Memphis After Signing Schools Consolidation Bill

By Bill Dries

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is in Memphis Monday for the announcement that Mitsubishi will be building a plant at Rivergate Industrial Port.

But before he leaves town, Haslam will be asked multiple times, privately and publicly, about his decision to sign the schools consolidation bill as the weekend began.

Haslam signed the bill into law Friday, just one day after the bill won final approval from the state House. It passed in the Senate Monday.

Meanwhile Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., with Thursday’s Memphis City Council vote to dissolve the Memphis City Schools system, was already pursuing an end run around the legislation.

He was also highly critical of the fast track treatment given the provisions that lengthen the consolidation process to two and a half years, leave the Memphis mayor with no appointments to the transition committee and open the door to special and municipal school districts sought by suburban political leaders.

“As of this speaking, they have not repealed the (state) law under which the council just acted,” Wharton said after the council vote when asked the impact on the state Legislature’s decision. “I say that with a bit of anger because I’ve learned in the past few days that in this particular matter the rules change. The rules change when people in Memphis do things that the gods in Nashville don’t like. They change the rules. I don’t know. They may change the rules tonight.”

The council took its action based on a disputed interpretation of state law that they believe completes the city schools charter surrender approved by the MCS board Dec. 20 without any need for a referendum.

Wharton acknowledged that interpretation could be challenged. But he said until such a challenge and court ruling backing it up he will attempt to negotiate a transition plan for a merger with the Shelby County Schools system.

In that plan, the city of Memphis would run MCS until a transition to a merged school system is completed or rejected by Memphis voters next month.

The council resolution stipulates it is not an attempt to stop the March 8 citywide referendum on schools consolidation.

Council attorney Allan Wade has said the referendum is preserved by a Chancery Court order and can only be called off with another court order that he said is “highly unlikely and very remote.”

Haslam committed to making his appointment to a transition committee established in the legislation a Memphian. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has made a similar commitment.

The five appointments to be made by the president of the MCS board won’t necessarily reflect the school board’s decision to surrender its charter in December even if all five are Memphis residents.

The Dec. 20 vote started the political process in which the simmering controversy began to move.

But the board’s vote was a 5-4 decision and school board president Freda Williams was one of the four “no” votes.

MCS superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash joined with Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken during the Legislature’s discussion in backing the legislation despite the December vote by his board.