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VOL. 126 | NO. 14 | Friday, January 21, 2011

Moving Forward

School fight moves to election date, transition discussions

By Bill Dries

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Even before the Shelby County Election Commission set a March 8 referendum date this week, the political discussion of school consolidation had already moved to who would control the transition.

Shelby County school board members meeting earlier this month to talk about the schools standoff. All of the players in the dispute agree the board controls the transition to consolidation if Memphis voters surrender the Memphis City Schools charter. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

That’s if voters approve the Memphis City Schools charter surrender and merger with Shelby County Schools.

The simple answer is the Shelby County Schools board. On that point, the attorneys for all of the players agree.

But will it be the existing seven-member board or a countywide school board that includes a new majority of appointed board members from a new set of Memphis districts?

Shelby County commissioners at their meeting Wednesday on the once-a-decade redistricting process were already looking over some general scenarios for a countywide school board that includes Memphis.

The commission draws its own district lines and those of the county school board.

Commissioner Walter Bailey, who chairs the committee, said his goal is to prepare for a consolidated school board with a “fair and balanced” approach to the planning that is “completely above board.”

“I certainly won’t say that we won’t see a change that won’t be fraught with politics. It will. Otherwise I’d be trying to con you,” Bailey said. “There will be political maneuvering. But at least we want it to be fair political maneuvering.”

His ground rules include a week’s notice of any proposals before there is a committee vote. And several plans surfaced minutes later. None were voted on by the group.

The commission is still awaiting a legal opinion from County Attorney Kelly Rayne on how many countywide school board members the body can appoint if any. There are also still some lingering questions about whether the commission would appoint school board members or whether the present county school board does that by law.

So far, the only thing Rayne is sure of is that the board would have at least seven members, its current size, and that the seven elected members now in place probably are allowed to serve out the remainders of their staggered terms of office. Tennessee law required staggered terms for school board members.

Most commissioners expressing an opinion are confident enough to begin planning to make the appointments.

Bailey said he wants to establish a “fair appointment process.”

Commissioner Steve Mulroy proposed a statement of intent to appoint new board members within two weeks of the referendum and for the commission to accept applications in advance of that.

“The responsible thing for us to do is to be prepared for it to happen,” Mulroy said.

Commissioner Mike Ritz proposed three levels of transition to a permanent 13-member school board with single member districts starting in late 2014. The first transitional board would be 23 members, including 16 Memphians from single-member districts serving until September 2012.

He included a “unification planning commission” to make nonbinding recommendations to the county school board on a transition.

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker argued for treating the expanded school board as if it were an annexation with a gradual expansion of the school board keeping intact the existing seven districts outside Memphis.

Bunker said it might also be easier to simply use the existing County Commission district lines for a countywide school board.

The MCS board districts use the same boundaries as Memphis City Council districts with two at-large or citywide seats on the school board and two council super districts being the differences in structure between the two.

Commissioner Chris Thomas argued for leaving the county school system intact and dividing what would be the old Memphis City Schools system. He also said the discussion of transitional school boards was “comical.”

“We’re basically saying that we’re allowing some of the same city school board members that threw up their hands and surrendered because they can’t solve their problems – and they may be on the school board that’s going to run the whole system and then they’re going to do the same thing to the county schools that they’ve done to the city schools,” Thomas said. “I would encourage anyone listening out there to leave the county schools alone and yes, divide the Memphis City Schools into four smaller districts so those school children can be taken care of better.”

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