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VOL. 126 | NO. 35 | Monday, February 21, 2011

Forums’ Message: Schools Vote More Than About City

By Bill Dries

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In the Bartlett Station Municipal Center last week, Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn asked for a show of hands among the several hundred people at the Mid-South Tea Party forum on schools consolidation.

“How many of you live in Bartlett and used to live in Memphis?” he asked.

The vast majority of those in the meeting hall raised their hands.

“You didn’t go far enough,” Flinn said after the hands went down. “We’re still one community.”

Flinn’s remark was a response to critics of the Memphis City Schools charter surrender question, which if approved would consolidate Shelby County’s two public school systems.

Some had said the move would only help build the communities in Tipton, Fayette and DeSoto counties with more expatriate Memphians.

Flinn argued the state of education in the region is a problem, not just the state of Memphis education.

The three county commissioners whose district takes in all six suburban towns and cities held a town hall meeting that segued into the Tea Party forum.

“We’re going to do everything we can to trip them up – stop them,” Commissioner Terry Roland said of the city schools charter surrender to an audience of several hundred, most of whom have no vote in the March 8 referendum.

Early voting in Memphis began last week and expanded to satellite voting sites over the weekend.

But the suburban residents at the Tea Party forum and another one sponsored by Memphis Area Association of Realtors heard that the issue is more than a Memphis vote and a Memphis debate.

They also heard appeals to break from what has been a united block of opposition to any type of consolidation.

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz, at the MAAR forum, specifically urged Germantown leaders to begin work now if they are serious about forming a municipal school district.

And he urged them to separate themselves from the “Pickler-Norris-Todd” opposition to schools consolidation. Ritz was referring to Shelby County Schools board Chairman David Pickler, state Senate GOP leader Mark Norris and state Rep. Curry Todd.

Pickler is the elected leader most associated with opposition to the Memphis City Schools charter surrender. Norris and Todd sponsored the state law that lengthened the consolidation transition period and opened the door to special schools and municipal school district status for suburban opponents of consolidation.

Ritz said the two-and-a-half-year transition period with a planning commission in the legislation means nothing in terms of a commitment to accepting the referendum results and moving ahead with a transition.

“They may meet, but I don’t think it’s of any value,” he said before talking about the real power behind any transition – the county school board.

Ritz and a voting majority on the commission are about to vote to turn it into a countywide school board including the seven existing board members and 18 appointees to newly created districts in the city of Memphis.

“If those seven don’t want to play, that’s fine,” Ritz said. “We don’t need them.”

Pickler says the County Commission can’t change the number of school board members without state legislation. But he agrees it can fill vacancies on the county school board.

“There are no vacancies on the county board of education,” he added.

“We know as soon as we make these appointments, the county school system will probably sue us. And we’re looking forward to defending one man-one vote,” Ritz said.

When asked about MCS school reforms with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pickler said the funding may not be stable despite several public statements from the foundation to the contrary.

Ritz accused Pickler of trying to scare city voters.

Pickler said in a countywide school system, the school board might have “philosophical differences” about those reforms and charter schools as well as optional schools.

The county school board recently turned down a charter schools application and was then ordered by the state board of education to approve the application.

“We are not perfect,” Pickler said referring to county schools. “But we do attempt to make every school great.”

“You just made the case for why the County Commission wants to quickly appoint 18 new (board) members,” Ritz replied.

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