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VOL. 125 | NO. 248 | Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Election Next For Charter Surrender

By Bill Dries

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Next comes the delivery of the paperwork. And that is the sound of law books you hear opening not too far behind.

In the wake of Monday’s late-night vote by the Memphis City Schools board to go for a school system charter surrender, the resolution must next be delivered to the Shelby County Election Commission to put the question to Memphis voters 45 to 60 days from delivery of the paperwork.

That could mean a special election as early as February – about three months since voters across Shelby County cast ballots on a metro consolidation charter that did not include school consolidation.

After the MCS board vote, Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler said the decision was “deeply troubling” but wasn’t specific on how the county school board might react.

“We will meet with our attorneys. We will meet with our staff and take the appropriate action. I am disappointed,” he said. “There are so many unanswered questions – the impact of this vote.”

When asked if his push for special school district legislation, the other half of the political standoff, was back on, Pickler again said no decision had been made.

The MCS vote was the culmination of six weeks of building political pressure that began when Republicans in the Tennessee House improved their majority in the Nov. 2 elections. The next day, MCS board member Martavius Jones told Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. he would propose a MCS charter surrender.

Jones, Pickler and others believed the 64-vote GOP majority in the House made it more likely the Legislature would pass special school district legislation the Shelby County school system had been seeking for a decade.

The Shelby County school system wants special district status to freeze borders between the county’s two public school systems and prevent any consolidation of the two school systems. Some MCS board members had no problem with that. Others said it amounts to agreeing to de facto racial segregation.

All agreed that they opposed special school district status based on a University of Memphis study from 2008 showing MCS would lose half the county property tax base it relies on for the majority of its local funding.

Pickler denies special school district status would mean a loss of funding for MCS.

When Jones proposed the charter surrender, Pickler immediately called for talks and a mutual stand down by both sides.

But a majority of board members had no faith such a stand down would hold based on Pickler’s past pushes for the bill. That included a push to get the bill through in Nashville as a single-source funding task force was still meeting to set the possible terms for such legislation.

The MCS board vote followed the same board’s rejection of a three-year stand down agreement offered by MCS board member Jeff Warren. It was negotiated over the last month by attorneys for the two school systems along with assistance from Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

MCS board attorney Dorsey Hopson said if one side didn’t abide by the stand down, the other side could seek an injunction in court. But he admitted there was little to make the stand down binding. And he said as a solution to “philosophical” differences between the boards about separate school systems and funding, the agreement didn’t do much to bridge the gap.

“If it’s philosophical, I would submit to the board there is no common ground,” he said.

Hopson said state law doesn’t allow for a ballot item that details what would happen after a charter surrender. He has previously told the MCS board that they would go out of business along with the school system the day that a popular vote approving the charter surrender is certified by the Election Commission.

Warren said Shelby County voters outside Memphis should be able to vote in the referendum. That’s not likely to happen.

But if Memphis voters approve the charter surrender in the upcoming special election, Hopson predicted “a lot of litigation” would follow.

If in the aftermath the Shelby County Schools became a special school district, Hopson also said that status would be open to strong challenges in court, stronger than if the county school system could achieve special school district status before a charter surrender.

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