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VOL. 125 | NO. 251 | Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Timing An Issue in Schools Standoff

By Bill Dries

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The schools standoff that has followed the metro consolidation charter debate is proving to be more a creature of timing than that campaign ever was.

As the New Year approaches, there isn’t a plan for what a consolidated countywide public school system would look like if Memphis voters surrender the Memphis City Schools charter.

That could come before Election Day, but the special referendum election will be sometime in February, between Feb. 7 and Feb. 25. The Shelby County Election Commission will set the election date next week, and assuming there are no lawsuits to stop the vote – a big assumption – early voting could be under way as early as Jan. 15.

The same clock is also ticking in Nashville, the other political front in the controversy.

Democratic state Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis said the timing there, so far, works against the two-step special school district legislation Shelby County Schools leaders want.

“I just don’t believe as touchy as it is in some areas of the state – I don’t believe that they’ll be able to fast-track that particular piece as easily … as they could the private act that would follow,” he said of lifting the prohibition on special school districts.

But some Republicans in the Shelby County delegation are moving to counteract the effect of a city schools charter surrender.

Less than 24 hours after the Dec. 20 MCS board vote to surrender the charter, Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown filed a bill that would transfer control of an entire school district with 15 percent of its schools on the state’s “non-performing” list to state control. Kelsey made no mention of the controversy in a written statement. He said school districts with 15 percent of their schools in non-performing status “have been failing students too long.”

“They’ve had their chance to succeed,” he continued. “And if the citizens vote to give up local control, then it’s time to give control over to the very best educational experts Tennessee has to offer.”

The state control through an “achievement school district” would apply only if those schools are in districts where voters have decided to surrender the school system charter.

Under Kelsey’s proposal, every school in the system would be part of the state-controlled district, regardless of how an individual school performs in the state and federal rankings.

Kelsey said Shelby County Republican legislators Ron Lollar, Jim Coley, Curry Todd and Mark White plan to file and sponsor a companion House bill.

All have been past sponsors of special school district legislation the Shelby County school system has been seeking for the last decade. When the political odds of that legislation passing improved with a jump in the Republican majority in the House in the Nov. 2 elections, MCS board members responded with the MCS charter surrender resolution.

Kelsey’s proposal is expected to be the first of several from Republican members of the Shelby County delegation on the subject of school districts and charter surrenders.

Hardaway said Democrats in the delegation will fight to block the legislation.

“I’m prepared to pull every procedural trick I have,” he said.

Hardaway told MCS board members during their long debate last week that they should act immediately because any bill with the right political forces behind it could clear committees and go to the floor of the House and Senate in a day.

But the likelihood of a February referendum date has eased Hardaway’s concerns a great deal if not totally.

The gavel falls on the new session of the Legislature on Jan. 11. The inauguration of the new governor is Jan. 15, and following that the Legislature will take a two- or three-week break.

Hardaway believes incoming House speaker Beth Harwell is leaning toward a three-week break, which would bring the Legislature back to Nashville and the real start of its session on Feb. 7 or Feb. 8.

One of Gov.-elect Bill Haslam’s most-watched appointments to come will be who he taps to be state education commissioner.

“The education commissioner is going to want to weigh in on this,” Hardaway said of legislation to lift the state’s ban on the creation of any new special school districts. “That’s going to be a hassle statewide. … What will the rest of the counties do?”

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