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

Lighting the Fuse

How the schools consolidation referendum got to this point

By Bill Dries

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Memphis voters have 22 words to weigh as they decide what is to become of Shelby County’s two public school systems.
“Shall the administration of the Memphis City School System, a special school district, be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?”
The words seem inadequate to cover what a “yes” or a “no” vote means after a state law and other factors changed the terms of a vote already scheduled for March 8.
Voters for schools consolidation may be against special schools district status but for letting some of the six suburban towns and cities try to go with their own municipal school system.
Voters may be against school consolidation and against special school district status if it includes taxing authority for the county school board, albeit with tax approval required by the Tennessee Legislature.
Some voters may see it as a way of ending reforms driven by MCS superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash. Others may see it as a way of ending Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler’s dominance of that school system.
School consolidation advocates are still urging citizens to vote “yes” and school consolidation opponents are still urging citizens to vote “no.”
“The lay of the land has changed, so will people consider the lay of the land or what? That statement stands. It’s on the ballot and everyone knows what it’s designed to do,” said Memphis City Council chairman Myron Lowery. “This occurred after the question was put on the ballot. If someone wants to make that stretch, they’re jumping over a lot of hurdles. This was not in place when this was put on the ballot.”
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., along with Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, sought a transition period even as political positions began to harden. He doesn’t see what’s in the law as a transition period.
“The way it’s structured, there’s every incentive not to reach an agreement. It looks to me like it falls off the face of the earth,” Wharton said. “There was nothing in there that states where do you go if at the end of this (the planning process) there is nothing resolved.”
State Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, disagrees.
“The state has a compelling interest in assuring that the administration of schools is properly discharged,” Norris wrote in an op-ed piece for The Memphis News last week. “To do otherwise defies common sense and common decency.”
Pickler said if voters approve the question, he will quickly move to assemble a team to work on the transition. It’s a transition that Pickler has always emphasized will be controlled by the county school system. That is one point on which the attorneys seem to agree.
“Clearly we understand that this issue is not about educational outcomes,” he said during a WKNO forum last week. “We still do not believe that creating a mega district … doesn’t do anything to improve education.”
MCS board member Tomeka Hart, at the same forum, countered “We do here as an economic issue,” a reference to the University of Memphis study showing special schools district status could cost MCS half of the county property tax base it relies on for funding. “It’s time to rewrite all of this,” Hart concluded.
Here is the timeline – to date – of the ongoing schools showdown:

Nov. 2, 2010: Statewide elections for all 99 seats in the state House result in a 64-vote Republican majority, a larger gain than even GOP strategists expected. Pickler later says his long-time goal of special school district status for the county school system stands a better chance of passing in the Legislature as a result.

Nov. 3: MCS board member Martavius Jones tells Wharton he will propose the MCS board surrender the school charter to block special school district status. The goal is to get the charter surrender to city voters before the Tennessee Legislature can approve bills both lifting the statewide ban on special school districts and approving a private act making the Shelby County system a special school district.

Nov. 19: Cash leads the city school board through a PowerPoint presentation detailing a University of Memphis study that points to the loss of half of the county property tax base MCS now relies on for funding if special school district legislation passes. Hart publicly calls for a charter surrender and says the administration is not being adamant enough about the risk to MCS.

Dec. 20: On a 5-4 vote, the MCS board approves the charter surrender.

Jan. 4, 2011: Wharton and Luttrell hold a press conference to propose state legislation that would add a five-month transition period as well as an 11-member planning team to any school consolidation. Norris later cites the press conference as the impetus for the legislation he will propose including a transition period. Pickler spells out dramatic terms for a county-controlled transition to consolidation in which he questions the future status of tenured teachers and questions whether union representation would continue. “We will take on the responsibility,” he says. “But it will come with a cost.”

Jan. 5: Tennessee elections coordinator Mark Goins says the MCS board needs approval from the Memphis City Council to put the charter surrender question on an election ballot. Based on that directive, the Shelby County Election Commission refuses to schedule the referendum, which rules out a February election date possibly before the Legislature begins its working session for 2011-2012. City Council member Shea Flinn begins a citizen petition drive requiring the signatures of 25 voters as an alternate path to the ballot.

Jan. 6: Franklin Attorney Chuck Cagle, an expert on Tennessee school consolidations and special counsel to the county school system, dispels some of the starker points made by Pickler and urges the county school system to begin working on a transition as if the ballot question will pass. He also introduces a phrase into the political discussion that will be used many times by consolidation opponents when he says the MCS Dec. 20 action amounted to the board “throwing the keys on the table” and walking away from the city school system.

Jan. 10: Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper issues legal opinion saying any schools consolidation referendum must be a city vote only. Cooper also acknowledges that the state law being used for the consolidation effort is vague on other points, though not on who gets to vote. Goins seeks clarification from the city school district on whether it is proposing a charter surrender or a transfer of authority. MCS attorneys respond that the resolution speaks for itself.

Jan. 12: Norris files a summary for a bill he intends to propose, which would require participation by county voters outside Memphis in any referendum. The group Citizens for Better Education and several other private citizens respond to the legislation by filing suit against the Shelby County Election Commission in Chancery Court seeking a court order that will force the election commission to set a referendum date.

“The way it’s structured, there’s every incentive not to reach an agreement. It looks to me like it falls off the face of the earth. There was nothing in there that states where do you go if at the end of this (the planning process) there is nothing resolved.”

– A C Wharton Jr.
Memphis Mayor

Jan. 13: Goins issues another legal opinion saying the MCS “clarification” has satisfied his concerns and directing the election commission to schedule an election. The election commission reaches a settlement with CBE’s attorney Allan Wade in which the election commission agrees to set a citywide referendum for March 8. The settlement is put in the form of a court order that can only be reversed by another court order. The distinction is a technical but important one that has a large influence on what comes next.

Jan. 15: The Tennessee Legislature begins a three-week recess after the inauguration of Gov. Bill Haslam with the Norris bill ready to go to committee hearings during the last week of the recess with a vote on the Senate floor as soon as the Legislature returns.

Jan. 19: The city schools board turns down a compromise offered by Shelby County Schools leaders in which the MCS board would rescind its charter surrender resolution, agree not to consider it for three years while a joint committee discusses it as well as special school district status. The compromise also would have required both school boards to support whatever the committee recommended even if it was special school district status. If the committee recommended schools consolidation, it would have been a countywide vote.

Jan. 26: Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he would like to see the referendum cancelled and MCS possibly taken over by state government.

Feb. 1: Haslam weighs in. He and acting state education commissioner Patrick Smith send a letter to both superintendents saying they must, by law, have a transition plan guaranteeing tenured teacher rights and benefits in both systems by Feb. 15 and would prefer an overall transition plan by March 1. County schools superintendent John Aitken and Cash say they can’t meet the deadlines.

Feb. 2: Norris takes his bill to committee in the Senate and amends it to delete any reference to a countywide vote. The March 8 citywide referendum is unchallenged in his amended bill. But the bill delays any schools consolidation for two and a half years for a planning commission to work. The Memphis mayor has no appointees to the commission. And the bill allows for the pursuit of special school or municipal school districts statuses by suburban consolidation opponents at the end of the two-and-a-half-year period.

Feb. 7: As the state Senate votes to approve the bill, a capacity crowd in Germantown hears an estimate from Germantown city administrator Patrick Lawton that a municipal school district to run the eight county schools in the city would take a 22-cent property tax hike just to cover operating costs.

Feb. 9: Shelby County attorney Kelly Rayne tells county commissioners the decision by Norris to let the citywide referendum stand unchallenged will make any legal challenge of the legislation much more difficult. She also opines the commission has the power to appoint interim members to an expanded countywide school board although its unclear how many additional Memphis seats the commission can create on what is now a seven member board.

Feb. 10: The Norris bill clears the final hurdle with passage in the Senate. Wharton reacts: “The rules change when people in Memphis do things that the gods in Nashville don’t like.” The city council meets in special session to ratify the Dec. 20 MCS board vote, a move it believes dissolves MCS immediately but leaves in place the March 8 referendum. The move is on shaky legal ground, but Wharton hopes to use it for the city to contract with county schools to run MCS until the referendum results are in.

Feb. 11: Haslam signs the Norris bill into law the day after it is approved in the state House and at the end of a week that began with passage in the state Senate.
The Shelby County school board files suit in Memphis federal court against MCS, the city of Memphis, the Memphis City Council and parts of the state and federal governments seeking court orders revoking the MCS board’s Dec. 20 charter surrender and the council’s ratification of the charter surrender.
Pickler rejects any move by Wharton to work with the county school system on a transition plan as part of the legal doctrine the city is pursuing. Wharton says the city is considering a lawsuit that attacks the new state law because it changes the terms of the referendum after the election has already been scheduled.

Feb. 16: Early voting in advance of the March 8 Election Day begins in Memphis.

March 3: Last day of early voting.

March 8: Election Day: 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. Tweets on election results after 7 p.m. @TDNpols and Web updates at The Daily News Online (www.memphisdailynews.com).

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