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VOL. 126 | NO. 21 | Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Elected Leaders Meet Tuesday on Schools Legislation

By Bill Dries

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There is some movement between political forces in Memphis and political forces representing the city and county in Nashville on the school consolidation question.

“I’m relatively certain there will be no effort to interfere with the right of the vote on March 8,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said Monday afternoon, referring to the March citywide referendum on the surrender of the Memphis City Schools system charter.

Meanwhile, Tennessee legislators from Shelby County meet at City Hall Tuesday with Memphis City Council members and Shelby County Commissioners.

The meeting is the day before two state Senate committees take up proposals that would lengthen the process of considering the consolidation of the county’s two public school systems.

The 2 p.m. session at City Hall will include members of both school boards and will be the first discussion of the political controversy by all five groups of elected leaders at the same time.

The legislation proposed by Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville, as it is currently, would delay any consolidation by the two school systems for at least a year. And if recommended by a planning commission, the consolidation proposal would include a vote by county residents outside Memphis.

The committee sessions Wednesday in the Senate and Thursday in the House come as the legislature is in the last week of a three-week recess.

The working session of the legislature begins Monday and the fast-tracked legislation could come to floor votes in both chambers as early as Monday.

Norris could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Other sources involved in the talks however have said Norris’ legislation might be amended to specifically allow for the March 8 referendum. But the citywide vote would be the trigger for the appointment of a planning commission that would send a plan to both school boards as well as the state department of education for approval. If the plan recommended consolidation and cleared the hurdles, the specific plan would then go to voters in a countywide referendum.

Wharton offered no details of what is emerging from the discussions or how set in stone they might be.

The biggest change appears to be allowing the March 8 referendum to go ahead as scheduled with early voting starting Feb. 16. Otherwise, it closely resembles Norris’ original proposal. But the scenario raises questions about what impact, if any, the March 8 referendum would have if it can be overruled by a later countywide vote or possibly vetoed by a dual majorities requirement in which the plan would have to win approval by city voters and then separately by county voters outside Memphis.

Wharton said calling off the city referendum, as Lieutenant Governor and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey suggested last week, is “not negotiable.”

“We will oppose it vehemently, both there and in court,” Wharton said. “Beyond that, I don’t know what may be presented.”

Meanwhile, leaders of the group “Citizens for Better Education” said they are prepared to take the state to court if the referendum is delayed or cancelled by the state.

The group and other citizens filed suit in Chancery Court earlier this month after the Shelby County Election Commission delayed setting a referendum date on the advice of state elections coordinator Mark Goins. After the group filed suit, Goins changed his legal opinion to match one from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office saying the election date should be set.

The election commission set the March 8 date as a settlement of the lawsuit. The settlement was formalized as a court order.

Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini has said the only way the election could be called off is with another court order.

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