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VOL. 123 | NO. 125 | Thursday, June 26, 2008

MCS and City Head to Court

By Andy Meek

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IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Memphis City Schools board member Martavius Jones recently discussed the system’s funding issues at a press conference. -- PHOTO BY ANDY MEEK

A local stalemate over school funding was the reason Memphis City Schools filed a lawsuit against the city of Memphis last week. At some point, education officials in the state capital could weigh in.

Concern over what the reaction will be from state officials is the reason for a palpable sense of urgency in getting the matter resolved. State education officials have left open the possibility of holding back $423 million from the city school system because of issues related to the funding impasse.

Representatives of both the city and the school system will be back in Shelby County Chancery Court this morning for a hearing before Chancellor Kenny Armstrong.

Making an example or bluffing?

The possibility of such drastic state action has produced a variety of responses. They run the gamut from incredulity to a fear the state will do exactly what Tennessee Department of Education officials said it has the power to do.

“I think the risk is too great for us to think the state would not exercise its authority. And it is clear to me they have the authority to (withhold school funding) if they wish to do so,” Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton told reporters last week. “I see possibly the state board of education within its realm of authority in making an example out of Memphis.”

Others aren’t so sure that will be the state’s reaction to a 10-3 vote earlier this month by the Memphis City Council to cut city funding to the city school system by about $70 million.

“I think things will all work out. I don’t believe the state will keep $423 million because we cut $72 million,” said City Councilman Myron Lowery. “That’s throwing the baby out with the bath water. That doesn’t make sense.

“I think it’s a big bluff. The public should not panic. I think that was an idle threat. I don’t believe Gov. (Phil) Bredesen is going to allow the largest school system in the state to collapse.”

Look east for answers

Until the state takes any official action, however, there’s at least one indicator of what a response from the state might look like. It can be found about three hours east of Memphis, where the Nashville school board is trying to come to grips with academically low-performing schools and an increasing level of state involvement and direction.

State officials there have jumped directly into the situation, becoming involved in decisions about staffing and school administration.

And last week, while local elected officials wondered both publicly and privately whether state education representatives would make good on their warning about the city schools’ funding impasse, Nashville school officials got a first-hand look at the state’s willingness to intervene.

Nashville school board member George Thompson said Dr. Connie Smith, executive director of accountability for the state department of education, made a presentation to the school board.

“She came to us last week and presented – what she did was reorganize the central administration and create a different structure in partnership with the administration,” Thompson said. “She made a presentation to our board last week about what shall be and what the outline is for improvement.”

A few days later, Bredesen told The Tennessean newspaper that he’s “dead serious” about making some changes in the Nashville school system. Unlike the funding issue in Memphis, the trigger for state involvement in Nashville has been academic performance.

But the Nashville situation clearly shows the extent to which state officials will assert their influence in making tough decisions for local school systems.

Earlier this month, the Nashville school system announced an administrative overhaul in conjunction with the state department of education that includes tweaks to the school board’s central office staff and operation. The announcement included news that more changes will be made in the coming weeks.

Among the changes, the school system’s department of teaching and learning has been transformed into a department of curriculum and instruction that will be led by six cabinet-level curriculum specialists, according to information from the school system.

“Memphis was fortunate, in my opinion, that the person this district turned away years ago ended up coming to Memphis as director of schools and kept Memphis out of corrective action, which is where we ended up,” Thompson said, referring to former Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson, who left the system last year and will be replaced by Dr. Kriner Cash.

“It somewhat speaks to that person’s capacity to at least hold the wolves off,” Thompson said.

Possible open meeting violations

The possible state action, meanwhile, is one piece of what has become a complicated legal puzzle whose solution now will depend on a court decision. Besides the lawsuit filed by Memphis City Schools, the local chapter of the Rainbow Push Coalition civil rights group filed a lawsuit earlier this month in response to the council’s funding cut.

The civil rights group basically makes the same claims the city school system does in its own suit, citing a legal obligation by the city of Memphis to maintain the same level of funding to the school system from year to year.

Rainbow Push attorney Jay Bailey issued a subpoena Friday for all e-mails, letters and correspondence of City Council members from March 1 through June 18, citing a possible violation of the state’s open meetings law in the way the council discussed and voted on the school funding cut.

“It appeared to me that the vote they took was done without any real discussion,” Bailey said. “And it appears to me that it would have been impossible for freshmen city councilmen such as Mr. (Bill) Morrison to put together a coalition of 10 votes, particularly on a hotbed issue like this, without there having been some discussion among these councilpersons.”

Morrison is the council member who came up with a funding proposal for the school system that included a corresponding reduction in the city’s property tax rate. His proposal is what the council approved.

“It appeared to me that the discussion was quite limited. Then they just came down and voted,” Bailey said. “I don’t think anybody was initially doing anything wrong. At this point in time, my job is to pull out all the stops. That’s what my intent is.”

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