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VOL. 126 | NO. 12 | Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Political Debate on Schools Broadens

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County election commissioners meet Wednesday for the second time this month to consider a special referendum election on a Memphis City Schools charter surrender.

The meeting is part of a court settlement of a lawsuit filed in Chancery Court this month over the Election Commission’s failure to schedule the election at its Jan. 5 meeting.

It comes the day after the MCS board was scheduled to meet to discuss a compromise offered by Shelby County Schools to head off the referendum.

The school board session was to play a large role in whether the Election Commission has any action to take at Wednesday’s session. For an update on Tuesday’s actions and discussions by the MCS board, go to The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com, for the latest developments.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Commissioners meet Wednesday for their third discussion of the schools standoff in a week.

The meeting of the commission’s ad hoc committee on redistricting was called specifically to discuss where the fast moving political potboiler stands at the moment.

It follows the inaugural committee session last week, which was more questions for county attorneys than it was comments on the controversy. The commission’s first formal debate of the controversy came later that day when the full commission met.

The commission passed two resolutions.

One opposed any legislation that would diminish “the legal authority” of the commission or the county school board.

The other resolution urges state legislators to oppose any legislation proposing a countywide vote on an MCS charter surrender or any participation by county voters who live outside Memphis.

The first resolution was aimed at showing the commission’s displeasure with state legislation proposed by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell to set up a planning commission to make recommendations on a consolidation transition.

Commissioners on both sides of the schools standoff were upset about the proposal and the press conference the mayors called to announce it with very little advance notice to commissioners and no advance word about what was in the proposal.

It’s the second rebuke by commissioners of a Luttrell proposal since Luttrell took office in September. The first was a New Year’s Eve override of his veto of a consolidated county information technology plan. The commission amended the plan to allow elected court clerks an option to join or remain separate from the new IT policy.

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker called the “legal authority” resolution a “power issue” separate from the schools consolidation controversy. And it passed 8-1 with plenty of bipartisan support.

The issue that directly touched on the consolidation controversy was also bipartisan with a 9-3 vote, leading Bunker to say the resolution would be noted in Nashville for who voted on which side.

All three county commissioners representing the district that includes all six of Shelby County suburban towns and cities – Bunker, Chris Thomas and Terry Roland – voted no.

Commissioner Walter Bailey accused some Shelby County legislators – including state Sen. Mark Norris by name – of pandering and fear mongering.

“All of a sudden when the city board of education chooses to exercise their legal right to surrender the charter, we get all of the – I’ll call them politicians like birds lurching on a limb waiting to strike and prey and exploit the climate of division. And you get your Mark Norrises and that crowd that get busy,” Bailey said. “They show how much they can jump in front of the panicked crowd and for their own political purposes exploit the situation and make it even graver.”

Thomas said the allegations of political posturing were a case of Democrats not being used to being the political minority in the state capital.

“How does it feel?” he asked Democrats on the commission. “Get used to it. It’s a new day and I’m enjoying it.”

It brought an immediate response from commission chairman Sidney Chism, leader of the seven-vote Democratic majority on the commission.

“Politics in Nashville has changed dramatically. Thank God it has not changed in Memphis,” he said. “All politics begins at home and ends at home. If you want to take that position, we’ll be fine.”

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