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VOL. 126 | NO. 10 | Friday, January 14, 2011

School Election to be Held in 45 to 60 Days

By Bill Dries

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The lawsuit is over and the election is on in the fast-moving, ever-changing schools standoff.

A day after a citizens group filed suit seeking a court order to put the Memphis City Schools (MCS) system charter surrender on the ballot, all sides in the lawsuit agreed there would be a referendum election sometime in March.

The timing of the agreement would block any impact on the citywide vote by pending state legislation seeking to make it a countywide vote.

The agreement was announced Thursday morning before Chancellor Walter Evans in what was supposed to be a routine court appearance that would have set the stage for a later hearing.

The Shelby County Election Commission, the plaintiff in the case, was advised by Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins to call the election a week after Goins had advised the commission it should not put the question on the ballot.

Under terms of the agreement, the 45- to 60-day period for holding the election in state law began to run Thursday even though the MCS board passed the resolution setting the stage for the referendum Dec. 20.

The Election Commission was tentatively set to meet Wednesday to set the election date, which would fall sometime between March 1 and March 14. The special general election for the vacant State House District 98 seat is already scheduled for March 8. If the commission picks that date, early voting on the referendum could begin Feb. 16.

The referendum would be a vote of city of Memphis citizens.

Attorney Allan Wade said Goins essentially changed his mind in a morning phone call from Nashville to local election officials in Memphis.

Wade represents several citizens individually and the group Citizens for Better Education in the lawsuit.

He insisted on starting the 45-60 day window Wednesday and having a written court order spelling out those terms by the close of the court business day Friday.

That seals the terms of the election as a citywide vote whether the legislature votes by Friday on legislation sponsored by state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville.

That legislation which Norris, the senate GOP leader, planned to fast track for approval by Saturday would have changed it to a countywide vote.

“With the court order ... it’s our position that the city voters have a vested right to vote on the question and that that right cannot be impaired by subsequent legislation,” Wade said.

Wade said he filed the suit when it became apparent Goins and the Election Commission were not going to reconsider the earlier decision not to schedule an election.

“It seemed to me that they just thumbed their nose at the opportunity to try to work this out with the Memphis City Schools board,” Wade said at the time. “Our clients, who are citizens, taxpayers and parents, felt compelled to go forward to protect their rights especially in light of Sen. Norris’ actions in Nashville.”

Wade filed the lawsuit the same day Norris formally filed his bill and outlined a fast track vote that would have put final approval on the same day as the inauguration of new Gov. Bill Haslam.

Goins asked for clarification Monday from MCS attorneys on the terms of the referendum.

Goins and local election officials continued then to make a legal distinction between a charter surrender resolution and a resolution that turns over control of MCS to the county school system.

The difference could have involved a longer period to hold an election than the 45- to 60-day window to go to a vote.

MCS attorneys responded by saying the MCS board’s resolution speaks for itself.

“It has met all of the requirements for a referendum to be held,” attorney Michael R. Marshall said in a letter Tuesday to Goins on behalf of the city school system.

Sometime late Wednesday or early Thursday, Goins blinked in the political standoff telling the Election Commission to make the election happen.

Late Thursday, Goins was expected to put the latest decision in writing and send it to the Election Commission.

PROPERTY SALES 50 226 2,557
MORTGAGES 44 145 1,731
BUILDING PERMITS 204 569 5,701