VOL. 126 | NO. 8 | Wednesday, January 12, 2011
No Schools Lawsuit Yet, State Elections Coordinator Asks For Clarification
By Bill Dries
The Tennessee elections coordinator has asked for clarification about why the Memphis City Schools (MCS) board wants to hold a special election.
The attorney for MCS Tuesday sent a letter to elections coordinator Mark Goins that might lead to another Shelby County Election Commission look at putting the MCS charter surrender referendum to Memphis voters possibly in February or March.
That was the interpretation of attorney Allan Wade, who is representing a second citizens group seeking the referendum.
Another group, Citizens for Better Education, had planned to file a lawsuit Tuesday afternoon but delayed filing the lawsuit to join the effort by Wade.
Wade stressed that he and his clients are not willing to wait long for a second election commission meeting on the issue.
“If this doesn’t happen within a reasonable period of time – and I’m not talking about a week – I’m talking about a few days – the lawsuit will be filed and … we will approach the court promptly to mandamus them to conduct this election,” Wade said.
Election commission chairman Bill Giannini said there were no plans Tuesday afternoon to call such a meeting. But he also indicated he is waiting to hear from Goins, whose legal opinion guides what election commissions across the state do and don’t do.
“I know that there’s correspondence between the city schools’ attorney and the coordinator,” he said. “I don’t know anything other than that. Once they’ve conferred then the coordinator can certainly advise us one way or another.”
Goins originally opined that a charter surrender referendum couldn’t go on the ballot until the Memphis City Council concurred. Based on that, the election commission did not schedule a referendum despite the formal request.
Goins’ opinion was despite a 2003 Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion specifically holding that council approval was not necessary.
In a Jan. 10 letter to MCS attorney Michael Marshall, Goins made a distinction about whether the referendum was to surrender the charter or transfer control of MCS to the county school system and effectively consolidate the two systems.
“To protect the validity of the referendum, this office seeks clarification from you … as to the school board’s intent and purpose in the call of the referendum,” Goins wrote Marshall this week. “Does the school board consider the transfer of administration separate from surrendering the charter? Alternatively, the school may want to pass a new resolution to clear up any confusion.”
“The board speaks through its resolution,” is the response Marshall sent to Goins in writing late Tuesday afternoon, indicating there will not be a new MCS resolution.
The MCS board authorized its attorneys, including Marshall, to take whatever steps are necessary to put the question on the ballot.
“All the preconditions for that have been met,” Marshall said of his letter to Goins. “Give us a referendum. That’s basically what it says.”
He also rejected the distinction Goins makes between a charter surrender and a transfer of administration.
“It doesn’t matter. (Tennessee law) provides for the transfer of administration to the Shelby County schools upon a request by the (Memphis) board of education to do so,” Marshall said. “The (Memphis) board of education has requested exactly that. Whether or not that also causes it to surrender its charter has nothing to do with whether or not there ought to be a referendum.”
The next step in the volatile political drama seems to be a response from Goins.