After studiously trying to stay out of the local schools standoff for a week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday got involved in a carefully chosen way.
Haslam’s involvement came the day before two state Senate committees are scheduled to vote on legislation that would lengthen the process for consolidating the city and county school systems and require that county voters outside Memphis be involved in any referendum.
During a Tuesday press conference in Nashville, Haslam said he had talked with Shelby County legislators as well as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.
Haslam has also talked with state House speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. and Senate speaker Ron Ramsey, legislative leaders whose decisions will play a large role in whether the legislation proposed by state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville gets fast tracked for floor votes on Monday’s opening day of the working session of the legislature.
“The state recognizes this as a local issue, but also the necessity to better understand the processes that have been put in motion,” Haslam said in prepared remarks.
Ramsey said last week that he would like to see the referendum postponed or cancelled and possibly a state takeover of Memphis City Schools.
Haslam didn’t refer to the remarks by Ramsey.
“This is primarily a local issue as to who votes and when, and as a former mayor, I understand that point,” Haslam said. “But the state has certain responsibilities to ensure that every child gets a good education and that nothing impairs that opportunity.”
Haslam and acting education commissioner Patrick Smith chose a careful path into the controversy by sending a letter to the superintendents of both school systems requiring them to submit a transition plan for how teachers will fare if Memphis voters decide to consolidate the two school systems in the March 8 referendum.
Smith referred to it as a “legal requirement … in the context of a change in any government structure or organization.”
“The commissioner (Smith) must make a determination that the rights and privileges afforded to teachers … are not impaired, interrupted, or diminished by organizational changes like the one proposed by the referendum,” he wrote in the letter to MCS superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash and Shelby County schools superintendent John Aitken.
The plan is due on Smith’s desk by Feb. 15, the day before early voting begins in advance of the March 8 election day. The letter doesn’t specify what happens if the plan is late.
But Haslam’s attorneys have advised him the state education commissioner has to review the plan and indicate that he doesn’t believe it will impair or diminish teachers’ privileges before the March 8 election day.
Since the controversy came to life in November, the state law safeguarding teacher tenure rights and pay in such a merger has been the one legal point all sides have agreed on.
Initially, Shelby County school board chairman David Pickler said the future of teachers from both systems in a single public school system in Shelby County would be uncertain. The statement was quickly contradicted by attorneys for proponents of the school system merger as well as Franklin, Tenn., attorney Chuck Cagle, one of several attorneys for the Shelby County school system who is considered an expert on such mergers under Tennessee law.
Smith and Haslam also requested a second broader transition plan from the two school superintendents that is not required by law.
Smith termed it “a more comprehensive transition plan … outlining other important issues that must be addressed to ensure this transition will be accomplished without negative consequences.”