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VOL. 126 | NO. 7 | Tuesday, January 11, 2011

AG Opinion Says Memphis-Only Vote On MCS Charter Surrender

By Bill Dries

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Another day, another in a series of legal opinions that continue to better define the terms of the standoff between Shelby County’s two public school systems.

Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper has issued a legal opinion that confirms only Memphis voters would vote in a referendum on a Memphis City Schools (MCS) system charter surrender.

“All legal voters of the special school district are eligible to vote in a referendum,” Cooper wrote in an opinion Monday issued in response to a question from Democratic state Representative G.A. Hardaway of Memphis.

Most of the attorneys representing the different players in the dispute had come to that conclusion. A few, including Chuck Cagle, the Nashville attorney representing the Shelby County Schools system, had said it might be possible to make a case for a countywide referendum.

Cooper acknowledged that one part of state law is vague on the point saying it “does not precisely state who may vote in the referendum on whether to abolish the district and transfer the district’s school administration.”

But he concluded the section before that “specifies that the referendum is to be held for the ‘legal voters of such districts.”

The sections of Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) that he references are 49-2-501 and 49-2-502.

Meanwhile, the Memphis branch of the NAACP is backing the MCS charter surrender and consolidation of the two school systems.

The executive committee of the civil rights organization announced its stand Monday with branch executive director Madeleine Taylor urging the Shelby County Election Commission to set a date for a citywide referendum immediately.

“With the current push by the Shelby County School Board to establish a special school district … it becomes imperative that we support the unification of these two systems,” Taylor said. “If the school district boundaries are frozen and eastward population shifts continue, it will continue to pit one school system against the other.”

Memphis NAACP President Warner Dickerson, a former superintendent of the Fayette County school system, said any challenges in combining Shelby County’s two public school systems could be met by learning from the experiences of educators in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Tipton County, where similar mergers have taken place.

“It was not a hard decision for us. If we are truly concerned about the children of this community, the decision is easy,” Dickerson said. “The schools were never built for the adults. They were built for the children and all of us should be concerned about the best access to equity for the boys and girls in Shelby County which also includes Memphis.”

The Memphis branch has been active in the community’s year or so of debate about consolidation in various forms. The group came out against the metro consolidation charter on the Nov. 2 ballot that won narrowly in the city of Memphis but lost by a wide margin in a separate referendum in Shelby County outside Memphis.

Dickerson accused the election commission of “stalling” by not setting a date for the MCS charter surrender question when it met last week.

The election commission took no action because of a legal opinion from state elections coordinator Mark Goins that said the Memphis City Council must approve the charter surrender before an election date can be set.

Several other legal opinions from the city attorney, the county attorney and the city council attorney disagree.

Another Tennessee Attorney General opined in 2003 that no council approval was needed. Cooper offered no opinion on the point and was not asked for one by Hardaway.

If the Chancery Court clerk’s office is open Tuesday, the group Citizens for Better Education plans to file a suit seeking to force the election commission to set an election date without a council vote.

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