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VOL. 125 | NO. 247 | Tuesday, December 21, 2010

MCS Board Votes To Surrender Charter

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis City Schools (MCS) board has approved surrendering the school system’s charter subject to a referendum by Memphis voters early in the new year.

The resolution was approved on a 5-4 vote by the MCS board after hours of often emotional debate in which even Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash took a stand.

Passage of the resolution means a special election referendum in the next 45-60 days.

If Memphis voters approve, it would dissolve MCS and effectively create a consolidated countywide school system.

The Monday night vote just a half hour before midnight was the culmination of six weeks of building political pressure that began when Republicans in the Tennessee House improved their majority in the Nov. 2 elections. The next day, MCS board member Martavius Jones told Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. he would propose a MCS charter surrender. He and others believed the 64 vote GOP majority in the house made it more likely the legislature would pass special school district legislation the Shelby County school system had been seeking for a decade.

The Shelby County school system wants special district status to freeze borders between the county’s two public school systems and prevent any consolidation of the two school systems. Some MCS board members have no problem with that. Others say it amounts to agreeing to de facto racial segregation. All agreed that they opposed special school district status based on a University of Memphis study from 2008 showing MCS would lose half the county property tax base it relies on for the majority of its local funding.

When Jones proposed the charter surrender, county school board chairman David Pickler called for talks and a mutual stand down by both sides. But a majority of board members had no faith such a stand down would hold based on Pickler’s past pushes for the bill. That included a push to get the bill through in Nashville as a single source funding task force was still meeting to set the possible terms for such legislation.

Pickler denies special school district status would mean a loss of funding for MCS. After the board vote, he said he was “disappointed” but wasn’t specific on how the county school board might react to the decision. He said he and his board would discuss the matter before making any decisions.

Before the board vote, Cash said the charter surrender and the “rhetoric” surrounding it were “junior high street fight non sense.”

Cash responded when he was asked by board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. how he thought a charter surrender would work. Until then, Cash had scrupulously declined comment.

In response to Whalum, Cash covered the existing controversy and his frustrations about his two and a half years at the helm of the school system.

“I’ve been fighting since I got here,” he said. “Now all of a sudden somebody … heard somebody say something and you’re ready to get revolutionary, radical. You want to be a civil rights all of a sudden. You should have done that a long time ago – long time ago. You didn’t need David Pickler to make you a civil libertarian. You’ve been running these school for the last hundred years – the last 50 years. These are your schools. …. They are in the best hands now.”

He also said a consolidation of the two school systems would be joining a school system that is “closed.”

“I don’t know county schools,” he said. “It’s closed and the media helps them.”

He also said he is concerned over what will happen to school reform initiatives that have been the centerpiece of his tenure so far and drawn national attention.

“What will happen to our work?” he asked. “Are you ready to throw it away?”

The comments were aimed in particular at board member Tomeka Hart who along with Jones has been the most vocal proponent of a charter surrender.

Hart said she couldn’t hold talks on even the possibility of preserving two separate public school systems.

“My values don’t allow me to put these babies in a system that is separate and inherently unequal,” she said.

Cash responded to that by saying he had worked in truly integrated school systems. “You don’t have that here. You don’t have any practice in it,” he said.

Hart told Cash his remarks were “disrespectful” and “personal.”

“How do we protect the kids if we do nothing?” she said referring to the special school districts legislation and calls for a standdown by both school systems.

Cash said his remarks were aimed at her as well as Shelby County Commission chairman Sidney Chism and Democratic state Representative G.A. Hardaway.

“That is exactly how we’ve been talking,” he said. “That’s not going to work. I think they (county schools leaders) are ready to sit down.”

The MCS board vote followed the same board’s rejection of a three year stand down agreement offered by board member Jeff Warren. It was negotiated over the last month by attorneys for the two school systems along with assistance from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

The agreement was voted down on a 4-5 vote with the same alliances as in the vote approving the charter surrender.

For the charter surrender were board members Jones, Tomeka Hart, Sharon Webb, Stephanie Gatewood and Patrice Robinson.

Voting against it and for Warren’s plan were board members Warren, Kenneth Whalum Jr., Betty Mallott and board president Freda Williams.

The 45-60 days for a special election is a new sooner time frame from MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson. The time frame was previously thought to be 60-75 days.

The days are counted from the time the Shelby County Election Commission gets a copy of Monday’s resolution. That could put the special election as early as February.

PROPERTY SALES 107 331 6,877
MORTGAGES 60 239 4,368
BUILDING PERMITS 190 508 16,423
BANKRUPTCIES 22 136 3,532