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VOL. 126 | NO. 1 | Monday, January 3, 2011

Standoff Continues Between School Systems

By Bill Dries

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The standoff between Shelby County’s two public school systems never really went on the back burner during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday break.

It just wasn’t as visible as political leaders outside the two school systems tried to find some middle ground between special schools district status for Shelby County Schools and a charter surrender for Memphis City Schools.

And numerous legal opinions – official and unofficial – were being sought on virtually every detail of the controversy.

The two school systems are in a political footrace to claim one status first, making it more difficult but not impossible for the other to claim its goal later.

The Shelby County Election Commission meets Wednesday to put the MCS charter surrender referendum on the ballot sometime in February with early voting expected to open this month, possibly as early voting closes in the special primary elections for state House District 98.

The next day, Thursday, the Shelby County Schools board will meet to talk over its options, which could include the first formal discussion of some kind of legal action to stop the MCS charter surrender.

Once the item is put on the ballot by the election commission, the stage is set for a lawsuit of some kind. Before it goes on the ballot, a court could rule the lawsuit is premature.

The controversy doesn’t lack for other legal questions and controversies.

“I would like to make clear that I am in agreement that with the combining of the two school systems, the mandated funding laid out by the city charter will come to an end,” Memphis City Council chairman Harold Collins wrote in a statement on the controversy as his yearlong tenure as chairman came to an end.

MCS board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. questioned the school system’s legal counsel, Dorsey Hopson, closely on the same point.

Hopson had a different opinion on what happens to the requirement for city funding that has been at the center of a protracted court fight since the council cut MCS funding in 2008.

“It would be very difficult for the city to try to sidestep it obligation,” Hopson said, offering that the Shelby County school system and its successor after an MCS charter surrender could simply assume the MCS role.

Two courts – chancery and the state appeals court – have ruled the city of Memphis owes the money under state law. And the Tennessee Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal by the city of the two rulings.

At year’s end, the city and MCS were negotiating the payment of the $54 million. The Wharton administration’s last offer at year’s end was a lump sum settlement of $38 million. MCS superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash has said he thinks the amount is too low.

The $38 million offer from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is a middle ground between two previous proposals to either pay the full $54 million on an eight-year installment plan or a lump sum payment of $21 million.

The City Council directed its attorney at year’s end to seek to hire a mediator to work toward a settlement.

PROPERTY SALES 61 61 6,453
MORTGAGES 46 46 4,081
BUILDING PERMITS 113 113 15,474