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VOL. 126 | NO. 34 | Friday, February 18, 2011

Schools Forums Hit Other Notes In Controversy

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz says Germantown leaders and taxpayers should form a municipal school district now if they are going to.

“I think what they need to do is get immediately very selfish for themselves,” Ritz said at a Memphis Area Association of Realtors forum Thursday.

“They ought to get on it with it. I think the worst time to do it is March 9. It’s not going to look good.”

His comments reflect how a fast moving controversy with lots of moving parts is beginning to shift into other shapes as Memphis voters begin to cast ballots on the central question of a Memphis City Schools charter surrender.

Early voting began Wednesday. Election day is March 8.

In Bartlett, the three county commissioners whose district takes in all six suburban towns and cities held a townhall meeting that segued into a forum by the Mid-South Tea Party.

“We’re going to do everything we can to trip them up – stop them,” commissioner Terry Roland said of the MCS charter surrender to an audience of several hundred, most of whom have no vote in the referendum.

At the forum, Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn delivered a message similar to Ritz about the possibility of a Bartlett municipal school district.

“God speed,” Flinn said. “Go nuts.”

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said he and other city leaders are looking at a Bartlett school district. It would involve 11 schools and Bartlett buying those schools at a net book value, according to McDonald, of $62 million.

“I don’t have that laying around,” he said adding that the debt service on that one time cost would mean a “significant” increase in the Bartlett property tax.

Germantown city administrator Patrick Lawton has said purchasing schools and adding to that city’s $28 million bonded indebtedness would also be a big hurdle for a municipal school district.

Ritz specifically urged Germantown leaders to separate themselves from the “Pickler-Norris-Todd” opposition to schools consolidation. Ritz was referring to Shelby County school board chairman David Pickler, state Senate GOP leader Mark Norris and state Representative Curry Todd.

Pickler is the elected leader most associated with opposition to the Memphis City Schools charter surrender. Norris and Todd sponsored the state law that lengthened the consolidation transition period and opened the door to special schools and municipal school district status for suburban opponents of consolidation.

After Flinn and McDonald made their points on a municipal school district, Pickler said there may be possible lawsuits or liabilities that might not allow the county school system to sell the buildings to a municipal school district.

Ritz said the two and a half year transition period with a planning commission in the legislation means nothing in terms of a commitment to accepting the referendum results and moving ahead with a transition.

“They may meet, but I don’t think it’s of any value,” he said before talking about the real power behind any transition – the county school board.

Ritz and a voting majority on the commission are about to vote to turn it into a countywide school board including the seven existing board members and 18 appointees to newly created districts in the city of Memphis.

“If those seven don’t want to play, that’s fine,” Ritz said. “We don’t need them.”

Pickler says the county commission can’t change the number of school board members without state legislation. But he agrees it can fill vacancies on the county school board.

“There are no vacancies on the county board of education,” he added.

“Those seven board members will decide what the unified school system looks like.”

Ritz countered that the private act creating the county school board was made a county ordinance with the county charter of 1976.

“We know as soon as we make these appointments, the county school system will probably sue us. And we’re looking forward to defending one man-one vote,” Ritz said.

When asked about MCS school reforms with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pickler said the funding may not be stable despite several public statements from the foundation to the contrary.

Ritz accused Pickler of trying to scare city voters

Pickler said in a countywide school system, the school board might have “philosophical differences” about those reforms and charter schools as well as optional schools.

The county school board recently turned down a charter schools application and was then ordered by the state board of education to approve the application.

“We are not perfect,” Pickler said referring to county schools. “But we do attempt to make every school great.”

“You just made the case for why the county commission wants to quickly appoint 18 new (board) members,” Ritz replied.

The thrust and parry between Pickler and Ritz in East Memphis came hours after Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam made his own contribution to the specific issue in Nashville.

He delivered a legislative package to state House speaker Beth Harwell that encourages more charter schools.

“Reform in education encompasses multiple approaches that embrace new, innovative concepts,” Haslam told reporters after the meeting. “We are asking for the cap on the number of charter schools to be removed and to allow open enrollment. The bar is high for charter school performance as it should be.”

Achievement school districts would also be authorized to approve charter schools under another bill in Haslam’s legislative package.

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