The best indication of just how carefully Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam chose his words this week in the schools standoff is in the very different interpretations of the comments in the Memphis and Shelby County political community.
Haslam and acting state Education Commissioner Patrick Smith said the two local schools superintendents have to come up with a transition plan to assure the pay and benefits of tenured teachers in both systems by Feb. 15 and should come up with a larger transition plan by March 1.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. noted the part where Haslam said he wasn’t seeking to delay the March 8 referendum on a surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter, which would effectively consolidate MCS with Shelby County Schools.
“It doesn’t expressly say go ahead,” Wharton said. “It’s written on the assumption that the referendum will take place on that day.”
Wharton said the transition plan required by law involving tenured teachers could be done without much trouble. The broader transition plan requested by Haslam and Smith isn’t required by law. But Wharton and others said it would be good to get started on it before the election.
State Rep. Jeanne Richardson, however, said it would be “almost impossible” to come up with the plans Haslam and Smith wanted before the March 8 election day.
Richardson was one of 10 Democratic state legislators from Shelby County who held a town hall meeting at City Hall Tuesday on the schools standoff.
In a written statement, state Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville said Haslam and Smith share his concerns about a transition to a consolidated school district.
Norris is sponsor of the Senate bill that would lengthen the consolidation process and include county voters outside Memphis in a referendum. He did not share Wharton’s belief that it would be easy to meet the requirement before early voting starts.
“No plan worth executing that will achieve positive results for educating all of our children can possibly be written or formulated by Feb. 15 or March 1,” Norris wrote. “People are choosing to ignore the law. My legislation will call for a countywide, single majority vote.”
The City Hall session lacked any Republican legislators in the delegation including any who are sponsoring it.
Delegation chairwoman and state Sen. Beverly Marrero talked of the delegation’s unity. But Marrero had been unable to get Republicans in the delegation to reveal any details about the coming amendments to the legislation.
She and other Shelby legislators said with Republican majorities in both chambers the bills couldn’t be stopped.
Memphis City Council chairman Myron Lowery suggested the GOP lawmakers in the Shelby delegation were trying to work around an outright challenge of the March 8 vote.
“Everyone understands the implication of what this means to stop an election,” he said. “So rather than stop the election … they’re trying to control what happens after the election.”
Republican Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter said the 22-member legislative delegation should let the rest of the Legislature know there is local Republican opposition to the Norris proposal.
“Some of your Middle Tennessee colleagues think this is a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s not.”
State Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said he didn’t believe Republicans from other parts of the state would go along if they saw a local difference of opinion.