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VOL. 126 | NO. 14 | Friday, January 21, 2011

New School Merger Option Emerges

By Bill Dries

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A second quicker path to school consolidation opened this week, the same night the Memphis City Schools board made a bigger splash by voting down a compromise offer from the Shelby County Schools system.

The Memphis City Council passed a resolution affirming the MCS board’s decision to surrender its charter. And council members believe they’ve checkmated state legislation that could make the coming citywide referendum on school consolidation an election open to county voters outside Memphis as well.

The bottom line of using the council option would be consolidation with no election.

The idea of the council voting to back the MCS board resolution was in a legal opinion from state elections coordinator Mark Goins. It was the reason Goins said the election commission should not set an election date earlier this month – the council had not approved the action.

Council chairman Myron Lowery reacted by saying the council would not vote on the matter because it had multiple differing legal opinions saying council approval was not necessary to put the question to voters.

But then the opinions pointed to council approval as a possible path to schools consolidation without a referendum.

Shelby County Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini was just as surprised at the council’s reaction as other political observers were of the changing legal opinions from the Nashville office that is the legal authority for election commission across the state.

“After I learned that they (the council) would be given the opportunity, I was surprised to learn they didn’t want it,” Giannini said. “And then, lo and behold, seven days later, by surprise, they took the opportunity. It’s changed from day to day ever since Dec. 20.”

Dec. 20 was the day the standoff between the two school systems went from discussion to action. It was the day the MCS board approved a charter surrender resolution.

The resolution also included references to turning over authority for MCS to the Shelby County school system. Goins wanted the school system to pick one or the other.

The school system’s attorneys told Goins the resolution spoke for itself.

Giannini insisted MCS leaders did clarify their resolution and that Goins didn’t blink in what seemed a staring contest between his office and the school system.

Giannini also said a lawsuit filed by a citizens group during the impasse didn’t influence Goins either.

Council members Shea Flinn and Harold Collins sponsored the charter surrender measure that cleared the council this week on 10-0 vote. Council members Edmund Ford Jr. and Bill Morrison recused themselves because they are teachers in the two school systems.

The council’s intent is to use the resolution to block legislation sponsored by state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

Norris’s bill would delay a consolidation vote for at least a year while a planning commission considers it and a number of other school related topics. The bill also requires a vote including voters from the county outside Memphis.

If Norris’ bill moves after the legislature’s three-week recess toward final approval, Flinn and Collins said they or other council members could call a special council meeting and move up the March 21 effective date on their resolution.

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