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VOL. 126 | NO. 10 | Friday, January 14, 2011

MCS Board To Look At Compromise

By Bill Dries

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On the day that the Tennessee Election Coordinator caved and told the Shelby County Election Commission to put a Memphis City Schools (MCS) charter surrender on the ballot, the MCS board voted to hold a meeting at some date in the near future to consider a compromise.

It is the same compromise State Senator Mark Norris referred to as “an agreement in principle” between attorneys for the MCS and Shelby County school system.

Norris referred to the compromise in a written statement Thursday evening about the bill he introduced this week that would lengthen the school consolidation process and require participation of county voters outside Memphis in any referendum on merging the two public school systems.

“Further legislative action this week seems unwarranted there in light of this positive development,” Norris said in the statement. “The pendency of SB 25 should not interfere in any way with the parties’ efforts to peaceably resolve an issue of such magnitude and importance to the schoolchildren and all residents of our county.”

The MCS board’s discussion of the compromise, described by MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson as offered by the Shelby County school system, indicated there is no agreement in principle.

The board had a lengthy debate at what was to be a non-voting “work session” meeting. The board then voted to schedule soon another working session devoted to examining the compromise and the broader issue of consolidation followed immediately by a voting meeting that could include a vote on the compromise or some kind of counter offer.

“If we’re having a meeting to clarify information and to merely discuss an offer that’s presented to us, I think that discussing the offer doesn’t mean that we are entertaining doing anything,” MCS board member Betty Mallott said. “But it’s a respectful acknowledgement that we have received something that they have worked on, that they think is a possible way to resolve issues. Having the meeting does not mean that we agree with anything in the document.”

Hopson described the compromise as requiring the MCS board to rescind its Dec. 20 resolution surrendering the MCS charter. The resolution was the first step toward the city referendum on the charter surrender agreed to this week by the Tennessee Elections Coordinator and the Shelby County Election Commission.

The compromise plan would be to appoint a committee to study for at least 18 months a possible consolidation of the school system as one of several issues including special schools district status for county schools. The committee’s recommendations would be binding on both school boards. A recommendation for consolidation would trigger a vote on a consolidation plan but it would be a countywide vote.

Hopson didn’t recommend the plan or recommend against it. He also said several MCS board members he talked with individually had questioned whether there was any statutory authority for parts of the proposal. Hopson said he could find none so far.

Board member Jeff Warren favors the compromise as a choice between “the politics of trust” and “the politics of fear.”

“I personally trust what I hear from (State Rep.) Ron Lollar and from Mark Norris -- that they don’t want to do anything to hurt our kids,” Warren said referring to the House sponsor of Norris’s bills. “They want to help us come to a common solution.”

“A lot of what’s going on is based of fear. I think we have seen the result of fear happen in Arizona,” he said in a reference to the recent shootings of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others. “We’ve seen when people don’t trust each other what happens, when we’re not talking -- respecting each other.”

Board member Sara Lewis referred to the move to the ballot and the initiatives lack of a transition plan as “this great comedy that’s going on in Memphis, Tennessee.”

“Do this rationally and take part of the emotion out of it,” she added.

Board member Martavius Jones, who proposed the charter surrender resolution that passed and set the referendum in motion, countered that most businesses merge without a plan in advance.

“This is never done in the real world,” he said. “I still fear … that during this time there will be laws enacted that will prohibit Memphians from making the decision and determining their own fate.”

“What is the fear of allowing citizens to vote on this?” asked MCS board member Stephanie Gatewood, who said she has no intention of voting to resind the earlier MCS board vote to surrender the school system’s charter. “What’s the big deal about allowing citizens to vote?”

The discussion spilled over into a break during the session.

Warren, arguing for at least exploring the compromise, told Jones, “The mayors will be in charge,” referring to the alternative to the compromise.

“We still are subjugating ourselves,” Jones replied.

Meanwhile, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. called the move to set an election date “a step in the right direction.”

“This is a uniquely Memphis issue and it is a decision that rests only with voters in our city,” he said in the written statement. “I wish I could say it’s all over. But in many respects, it has just begun, and I will continue to monitor future events as they unfold. I assure you that we will get through it and not only be a better city for it, but one closer to my dream of One Memphis.”

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