Voting Begins as Schools Contingency Planning Continues

By Bill Dries

Just as Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey declared Monday that there was no more Memphis City Schools board, that board was preparing to meet.

Bailey made his statement as he made the case for a bundle of resolutions that are the latest contribution to a growing pile of contingency plans in the event there is schools consolidation.

“I would be mad if it wasn’t so funny,” responded commissioner Terry Roland.

The resolutions were a reaction to yet another contingency plan in which the Memphis City Council last week ratified the surrender of the city schools charter. Some council members take the position that the ratification of the city schools board’s Dec. 20 vote dissolved the system while preserving the validity of the referendum.

Whether the council action has any effect on anything is a highly disputed legal position. On the other hand, it prompted Shelby County Schools to sue the council, city government, the MCS board and parts of the state and federal governments the day after the council vote.

Yet, even the lawsuit was part of the mound of reactions that could threaten to obscure the schools consolidation referendum at the center of all the reactions. The lawsuit also challenges the original Dec. 20 charter surrender by the MCS board that led to the referendum.

The March 8 referendum seems to be the only untouchable piece in the entire scenario.

Preserving it was one of the concerns Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said he had as he considered whether or not to sign the schools consolidation bill into law last week.

“It did allow the vote to happen, which was very, very important. It set a process in place for what happens after that,” Haslam said Monday during his first visit to Memphis since signing the bill. “Here’s what my concern is – if the vote on March 8 is to surrender the charter that everybody shouldn’t come into it with any preconceived notions or fears about what would happen.”

Haslam’s biggest qualm was how much the law slows down the path between the vote and consolidation. But it wasn’t a big enough concern for him to veto the bill.

“I want to ask everybody to put their wholehearted best faith effort into coming up with that plan as soon as possible,” he said. “All we can control is what happens going forward.”

The referendum comes with its own contingencies.

A win for the ballot question with voters will probably affect some of the court decisions to come after all of the votes are counted, possibly a court challenge of the state law governing what happens after election day.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. noted the court challenge of county government’s term limits four years ago failed in part because term limits won big in the countywide referendum that put them in place. The Tennessee Supreme Court even noting the percentages from the vote.

“It does matter,” Wharton said citing the ruling. “See how many times the Supreme Court referred to the fact that this was voted on by the citizens of Shelby County.”

But away from the referendum there are already charges and counter charges about the timing and terms of the transition on whatever terms emerge.

“We can’t indulge a lot of time,” Bailey said of the need to pass resolutions now setting the stage for a countywide school board to replace the county school board. “We’ve got to take this bull by the horns. We don’t have a choice.”

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker saw a different result and motivation.

“We’re headed straight for a lawsuit,” he said. “It’s a bunch of speculation with no legal relevance. It’s all about power – a power grab.”

Commissioner Steve Mulroy, the sponsor of the resolutions, agreed with Roland on how this all might look to someone unfamiliar with the quick moving political timeline.

“We’re in an awkward period right now where it makes a difference which track we’re on,” Mulroy said, referring to the track to the referendum and the track to consolidation through the council’s ratification.