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VOL. 126 | NO. 12 | Wednesday, January 19, 2011

MCS Board Votes Down Schools Standoff Compromise

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis City Schools (MCS) board voted down a compromise proposal Tuesday from Shelby County School officials.

The 2-7 vote against the compromise sets the stage for the Shelby County Election Commission to meet Wed. and set a date for a March referendum on the MCS charter surrender approved by the board in December.

The decision followed four hours of debate among board members as well as lots of questions for the three attorneys representing MCS.

MCS board member Jeff Warren proposed a counter offer that would have let the referendum go ahead. But he would have limited the proposed planning committee to studying a single consolidated system broken into several districts instead of the wider range of topics in the county offer that included a special school district for county schools. He also included a provision to set a specific date in the future for such a school system to start and he would have required both school systems to lobby in Nashville for legislation to require a countywide vote on such a move toward consolidation.

But Warren’s counter offer didn’t get to a vote. Warren said he’s not done with pursuing it, but conceded time is running out and the chance of it drawing a counter offer from county school officials or winning acceptance from county school officials is not good.

Warren has said he trusts county school leaders.

But he was lectured by fellow board Stephanie Gatewood who said she opposed but respected his effort to work something out.

“They’ve not changed the agreement at all,” she said referring to a previous compromise from December. “They have no desire whatsoever to put your edits in the compromise.”

MCS board members who opposed the charter surrender resolution approved by the board in December had problems with the county’s compromise offer starting with its requirement that the MCS board rescind its Dec. vote. Others had problems with its requirement of a countywide vote on the matter should it get out of the planning committee as a recommendation.

Warren believes there should be a countywide vote and not voting limited to city residents. But his problem was the talks to come under the county schools method would have had too many topics other than consolidation on the table.

MCS board member Tomeka Hart said the county schools offer wasn’t a compromise at all.

“I’m still looking for the compromise,” she said. “It stops everybody on the Memphis City Schools side.”

Hart said she understood board members who were against the charter surrender, but didn’t understand board members favoring a countywide vote and “diluting” the power of city voters.

“What I hear is about power, money and control,” said MCS board member Sara Lewis who has said the consolidation effort needs more time to work on and spell out a transition. Nevertheless, Lewis was among the board members who had problems with a countywide vote instead of a city only vote.

“This is a takeover in reverse,” said MCS board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., one of the two votes for the county schools compromise along with MCS board president Freda Williams.

MCS board member Betty Mallott, considered a swing vote when it was thought the board vote would be closer than it wound up being, said the compromise wasn’t what she expected.

After a county school board meeting in which the county school system’s outside counsel, Chuck Cagle, urged them to begin working now on a transition plan, Mallott said she was prepared for talks or some dialogue on just that.

“I was a little disappointed when I saw in this agreement that it required us to rescind our vote,” she said. “That it restricted our process of continuing our effort to give up our charter and that it also was fraught with other things to be studied that were pretty remote to us coming together as a district.”

She said she hopes county school leaders will work with MCS board without the MCS board rescinding the move to the ballot in March.

In a controversy that has usually offered a surprise for every expected action, the Memphis City Council Tuesday evening gave its approval to an MCS charter surrender but delays the effective date of council approval to March 21.

The council action appears to set in motion an alternative route to the same goal – consolidation of Shelby County two public school systems. Only with council acceptance of the charter surrender, it could be a path to consolidation that does not require a referendum.

Council members Shea Flinn and Harold Collins included in their resolution a provision to call the council to a special meeting to move up the effective date of the council’s acceptance should the Tennessee legislature move to make a charter surrender referendum a vote including county citizens outside Memphis.

That is the intent of legislation state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville had introduced in the Tennessee legislature before the legislature’s three week recess began this week.

The council measure passed on 10-0 vote. Council members Edmund Ford Jr. and Bill Morrison abstained. They are school teachers – Ford in the MCS system and Morrison in the county schools system.

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