Commission Adds Schools Contingencies to Growing Pile

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Commissioners added a bundle of resolutions Monday to the build up of schools consolidation preparations.

Much of the preparation by the commission and others is built on the consolidation question winning approval of Memphis voters on March 8.

Much of it is also built in anticipation of rulings in one lawsuit already pending and the likely filing of several more this week or later this month.

The commission approved on the first of three readings an ordinance to expand the county school board from its current seven members to 27 members and make it a 27 member board. The extra 20 seats would be for districts within the city of Memphis.

The resolutions passed Monday by the commission included making preparations in April to interview candidates for those new seats before the commission would appoint citizens to them.

The commission also called on both school systems to set up a “unification education planning commission” similar to the 21 member planning commission established in the state legislation that became law last week.

The commission voted to hire the Baker Donelson law firm as special counsel to the commission in case the commission decides to file a lawsuit challenging the new state law.

The law lengthens the wait for consolidation to two and a half years and opens the door to special school or municipal schools district status suburban opponents of consolidation have been seeking.

The other commission resolutions expressed the body’s opposition to the legislation, although it was not unanimous. It was a 9-4 vote.

The commission voted 11-1 for a resolution vowing the county would not cut its current level of operating funding to city and county schools if they become a unified school system. It was the closest the commission got to a unanimous vote on any of the resolutions or the ordinance.

“We’re headed straight for a lawsuit,” said Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, a no vote on all but the funding resolution on which he passed.

“It’s a bunch of speculation with no legal relevance,” he added. “It’s all about power – a power grab.”

Commissioner Walter Bailey, however, argued that the commission had to act since last week’s city council vote that some believe dissolved the Memphis City Schools system.

“We have no city board of education,” he said. “We can’t indulge a lot of time. We’ve got to take this bull by the horns. We don’t have a choice.”

“I would be mad if it wasn’t so funny,” responded commissioner Terry Roland, who noted that the MCS board Bailey said no longer existed was about to meet in Midtown.

The city council vote ratifying the MCS board’s Dec. 20 vote to surrender its charter is the basis for a federal lawsuit filed the day after the council vote by the Shelby County school system. The county schools lawsuit also challenges the original Dec. 20 vote.

Bunker and other opponents questioned the rush to pass the provisions before the referendum as well as the legal authority for the actions.

Bailey said the county school board is “constitutionally impaired” if it doesn’t include Memphis representation as soon as possible.

“One second without representation is too long,” said commissioner Henri Brooks.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy, the sponsor of most of the resolutions and the ordinance, called out opponents of them saying if they were so sure the courts would reject the preparation – “Why are you so upset?”

The 27 member school board in his proposal would be a temporary measure built around the assumption that the existing county school board members would be allowed to serve out their terms of office – some ending in 2012 and the rest ending in 2014. The number of seats on the board would drop over those years under his plan.