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VOL. 126 | NO. 9 | Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lawsuit Filed as Norris Submits Legislation in Schools Standoff

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis City Schools (MCS) charter surrender controversy is in the courts.

The group Citizens for Better Education and two citizens filed suit in Chancery Court Wednesday afternoon seeking a court order directing the Shelby County Election Commission to put a charter surrender referendum on the ballot and set a date for the election.

The lawsuit came on a day of changes by the hour in the controversy.

State Senator Mark Norris of Collierville, the Senate GOP leader, filed legislation to dramatically change the terms of any move toward schools consolidation and lengthen the process. His bill would also make any referendum a countywide vote instead of a citywide vote.

There were also reports leaders of the two school systems were attempting a new stand down plan that would also delay a referendum and create a planning commission to work out terms of a transition.

But the terms of the compromise appeared similar to some terms in the legislation. The bill was intended to be a stick in a carrot and stick method to find political common ground.

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Allan Wade, seeks an expedited hearing on the matter and an injunction from Chancery Court to set an election date “as soon as possible.”

He argues the election commission has “a mandatory ministerial duty” to hold the election.

Wade said he hopes to have a hearing on the matter as early as Friday.

Wade said he acted when it became apparent the Tennessee elections coordinator and the Shelby County Election Commission were not going to reconsider an earlier decision not to schedule an election.

Election Coordinator Mark Goins asked for clarification on the terms of the referendum earlier this week.

"It seemed to me that they just thumbed their nose at the opportunity to try to work this out with the Memphis City Schools board," Wade said. "Our clients, who are citizens, taxpayers and parents, felt compelled to go forward to protect their rights especially in light of Senator Norris's actions in Nashville."

Before a hearing, there will be a temporary order entered deciding whether the case will involve a writ of mandamus or an injunction. The election commission will have a chance to respond.

In other developments, Tennessee Governor elect Bill Haslam arrived in Memphis Wednesday to tour the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and got a face full of questions from reporters about the schools standoff that may land on his desk his first day in office.

Haslam was in Memphis for the tour and a pre-inaugural reception at the Memphis Botanic Garden as Norris filed Senate bill 25 in Nashville.

The proposal would dramatically change and lengthen what is now a short and abrupt journey to the ballot for the Memphis City Schools (MCS) system charter surrender.

It also gives a controversy with several local political fronts a new one in Nashville.

“We have a very vested interest,” Haslam said of the state’s role in the controversy.

“If the city’s going to go out of the school business, let’s make sure that those kids in the city schools as well as the county schools are well served and well represented throughout that process.”

Haslam said he has been in touch with Norris about the legislation and appeared to be talking with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell about reports of a compromise being worked on by the two school systems.

Shelby County schools superintendent John Aitken confirmed renewed discussions between Memphis City Schools (MCS) officials and his school system. Those talks could be another attempt at a stand down or at least slow down in the process the MCS board began Dec. 20 with a vote to surrender its charter.

The next step would be a citywide referendum on the question. But the Shelby County Election Commission has not set a date for the election, saying Memphis City Council approval is necessary.

“All I know is what I’ve gotten from press reports,” Wharton said. “Mayor Luttrell and I had hoped to work out something that’s in the best interest of all the children. I will not say a word that might interfere with what they are doing and simply await whatever they come up with.”

Luttrell is reportedly overseeing the discussions which reportedly involve a one year delay in the process.

But if that is the compromise, its time frame is no different than the legislation Norris proposed.

The proposal, according to a summary on the Tennessee legislature’s web site, would require a planning commission or “unification educational planning commission” type approach now found in state law governing school system mergers in which both school systems want to consolidate. It would also change the referendum from a citywide vote to a countywide vote.

The approach in Norris’s legislation would leave a recommendation for or against consolidation to the planning commission which would report within a year after being formed. If the recommendation is for consolidation, the same group then comes up with a merger plan that must be approved by state education officials and taken to “the affected governing bodies” for their approval or rejection. If one of the bodies then recommends the plan it goes to a countywide referendum.

If all of the governing bodies reject the plan there is no vote and the consolidation bid is dead with one exception.

Norris provides for a citizens petition to take the item to a vote. But it requires far more than the 25 signatures that are now the standard. Norris’s standard is at least 10 percent of the voters in Shelby County who voted in Shelby County in the last race for Governor.

For a referendum to get on the ballot in the next four years, that would be 22,947 signatures.

Asked who he believed should be able to vote in a charter surrender referendum, Wharton said he believed only Memphis residents should.

Haslam said the issue will almost certainly wind up in court.

“Ultimately I think a court will get to decide who does get to vote on this,” he said as he commented on Norris’s proposal. “The part that talks about an orderly process – I think that we all agree that that’s in the best interest of the children of Shelby County.”

Haslam said how he reacts to a bill on his desk by Saturday would depend on what is in the bill.

Norris’s goal, if there is no local compromise or stand down worked out, is to fast track votes in the Senate and House to have final approval by Saturday when the legislature meets to attend the inauguration.

After the inauguration, the legislature closes the organizational session it began Tuesday and begins the first day of the “regular session.” That’s when final votes on the bill would happen under the scenario.

After Saturday, the legislature adjourns for a three week recess.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Commissioners began the once a decade redistricting process divided on whether they should include among their tasks putting together a set of district lines for a countywide school board including Memphis.

Democratic Commissioner Walter Bailey, chairman of the committee, said he would prefer to wait. And Republican commissioners opposed to a consolidation of the county’s two public school systems agreed with him.

County Commission chairman Sidney Chism and others, however, said the commission should begin coming up with a general outline of what a countywide school board would look like now in case there is a referendum and a merger is approved.

“Get ready for it,” Chism said adding that to not have a plan and have a county school board that includes Memphis without representation for Memphis would be “taxation without representation.”

The committee took no vote and no motion was made on setting that as a priority. But a motion could come at later meetings of the group which is still awaiting U.S. Census data that comes to counties across the state through state government.

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