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VOL. 123 | NO. 121 | Friday, June 20, 2008

MCS-Funding Lawsuit May Be The Only Answer

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“We needed to file something before July 1. We’re using this suit as sort of like a deadline. We can’t just be negotiating for two more months or whatever. We’re trying to get something resolved before we open our doors in August.”
–  Van Turner
Associate general counsel, Memphis City Schools 


In the space of about four hours this week, members of the Memphis City Council and the Memphis City Schools board went from expressions of hope to expressions of anger.

And 24 hours later, attorneys for the school system had filed suit in Shelby County Chancery Court against the city of Memphis.

In the rapidly developing politics of the council’s decision earlier this month to cut $70 million in city funding to the school system effective July 1, Gov. Phil Bredesen also condemned the council’s decision during a visit to Memphis.

But Bredesen stopped short of saying what those in his state education department earlier said: The state will cut $423 million in state funding to the schools if the city stands by its funding cut.

Taking issue

The lawsuit has been assigned to Chancellor Kenny Armstrong, who has scheduled a June 26 hearing on the matter. At issue is the council’s 10-3 vote earlier this month to cut city funding to the school system.

Most council members and their attorney, Allan Wade, have argued that the city has no obligation to fund the school system at all but has done so voluntarily. The current fiscal year funding from the city that ends with the start of July is $93 million of the school system’s $1 billion budget.

The city school board and state education officials have taken the position that the city is obligated never to cut its level of funding.

“We needed to file something before July 1,” Memphis school system associate general counsel Van Turner told The Daily News Wednesday afternoon. “We’re using this suit as sort of like a deadline. We can’t just be negotiating for two more months or whatever. We’re trying to get something resolved before we open our doors in August.”

The council and school system announced Tuesday they have agreed to talk about the issues and try to resolve the dispute without a court fight. But in agreeing to talk, city school system officials made it clear Tuesday they were not taking the possibility of a lawsuit against the city, the county or both off the table.

Turner emphasized that again Wednesday after the lawsuit was filed.

“What we have done is move the issue forward and gone ahead to protect ourselves in court. We have a suit, but we’re seriously in good faith going to try to resolve this thing,” he told The Daily News. “The state’s not in it. We’re not doing anything with anyone else until we get the negotiations settled.”

Apathy: school system’s worst foe

The negotiations were announced with great fanfare at the start of Tuesday’s council session by council members Harold Collins and Bill Morrison. With most of the city school board standing with them, Collins announced the effort to a nearly full council chambers.

FOR SHAME: “What the City Council did was a backing away from their clear legal responsibility to fund the schools,” Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen told reporters this week as he responded to the council’s decision to cut $70 million in funding to the Memphis school system. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Most of those in the chamber were parents of city school students or teachers and school administrators. Several parents said they were urged to come and speak against the council’s funding cut after getting telephone calls from their children’s schools.

Many stayed for the end of the council meeting to speak even after council members announced there was no item on the agenda involving school funding.

By the end of the comments – some politely but firmly disagreeing with the funding cuts, others angrily berating the council – many on the council were angry.

None appeared angrier than council member Wanda Halbert, a former Memphis school board president.

“I am a staunch supporter of Memphis City Schools. … But I am, too, like a lot of other parents. … When you ask a question, you get chastised – you get put out of school,” she said before responding to earlier comments about cuts in school programs by school board member Dr. Jeff Warren. “Jeff, it hurt me to my heart to hear that the first thing you all want to cut – librarians, guidance counselors. That’s not coming (out of) the administration. That’s coming from somebody who wants you to panic.”

Her anger intensified as school board members then got up to leave.

“You pick up this organizational chart. You pick it up in case you haven’t seen it. Pick it up. With all due respect to every administrator sitting there – it is packed. That’s exactly right because it’s not about accountability,” she said slapping a copy of the chart down on a counter. “There are children graduating who cannot read and write and you see how your administrators got up and walked out of here? That’s why. That’s why (the children) cannot read and write.”

Accentuate positives, expect negatives

Warren earlier had cast the funding cut as a blow to a major employer.

“We’re in the middle of a recession. Memphis City Schools is the second largest business in the city and third largest business in the state. … I think it behooves us all as government bodies to take a step back. … We need to think about this economic problem because it could be huge,” he said. “We beat up on ourselves too much here in Memphis. We’ve got a great school system. We really do.”

Collins was calmer than Halbert about the walkout but also took notice.

“For those people to walk out while council member Halbert was sharing her views demonstrates the type of people they are. … Imagine how you would have felt had you seen that and you control the purse strings,” he said. “Be ready for the change because if you’re not ready, you’ll be left behind. It is a new day and time in city government.”

Meanwhile, Bredesen said Wednesday he is “very disappointed” in the council’s funding cut.

“I’m hoping that they’ll come to their senses and restore it. We can move on from there as to how to fix and improve the schools,” Bredesen told reporters at the Lewis Senior Citizens Center in Midtown before the lawsuit was filed. “But if they don’t, the state certainly would take a very dim view. We would have some obligations to try and rectify the situation.”

Bredesen stopped short of saying the state would cut its funding, despite the previous vow by state education department officials.

He also didn’t get into the dueling legal positions Wednesday.

“I don’t want to make an example out of anybody. But from the other side, right after I went out on a limb and took a lot of hits to raise taxes on cigarettes … to have somebody turn around and take that money right back out again – I get a little insulted,” he said of his 2007 education funding bill. “If you let this go unnoticed – just let it slide – there’ll be other districts in the state who will say, ‘Heck, there’s no consequences. We’ll just take our money out and let the state worry about it.’

“In Tennessee, for better or worse, funding schools is a joint responsibility of local government and the state. Just as I expect the state and the Legislature to step up to our responsibilities, I expect local governments to step up to theirs. What the City Council did was a backing away from their clear legal responsibility to fund the schools.”

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