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VOL. 126 | NO. 19 | Friday, January 28, 2011

School Referendum at Center of Recent Forums

By Bill Dries

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It seems to be the season for forums – three, in fact, at the same time Thursday evening in different parts of the city all on the Memphis City Schools charter surrender on the March 8 referendum ballot.

The forums began with a pair of televised debates earlier in the week.

The tone of the News Channel 3 and Action News 5 events indicated the campaign to March 8 will move quickly and will be intense.

The News Channel 3 and MPACT forum Tuesday was a three-on-three skirmish with lots of detours.

Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler, the common feature in both forums, questioned what Memphis voters would do if they elected a countywide school board.

“The reality is that you’re saying, ‘Why can’t we replicate the success of the Shelby County Board of Education.’ But at the same time you’re saying, ‘No, in fairly short order, we’re really going to be having the same kind of leadership that we’ve had with the Memphis City Schools board’ – the board that voted to give up its charter and walk away,” Pickler said.

“When did I stop being a Shelby Countian?” asked Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn, who cited city votes in the August elections in which Republicans swept every countywide office. “It elected Mayor Luttrell. It voted straight Republican. We’re making all sorts of assumptions of how people are going to vote that are the worst kind of stereotypes. It’s just not true. August backed that up completely.”

The Action News 5 and Memphis Rotary Club debate Wednesday between MCS board member Tomeka Hart and Pickler hit some of the same themes but was fixed on two central points – how the move to the ballot happened and what a transition will look like either before or after the votes are counted March 8.

Pickler repeatedly said he and county school leaders have a lot of unanswered questions about a transition.

“There is no plan,” he said. “The reality is the city school board is pursuing a political agenda.”

“We control that and we can sit down right now, right here and decide, ‘Here’s the plan. Here’s what we’re going to do,’” Hart answered. “Everybody is calling for a plan but Shelby County (schools).”

“The city school board had an opportunity to do this and they chose not to,” Pickler replied.

He was referring to a compromise the MCS board rejected from the county school system to rescind its charter surrender, call off the election and enter into at least a year of talks involving a committee that would explore consolidation along with other topics including the special school system status sought by Pickler for the last 10 years.

Hart said it was not a compromise in any sense of the word and she countered that the special school district status legislation was the reason the MCS board had to act quickly or face losing half of its property tax base.

She also repeatedly said if a transition plan waits until after the March 8 election, it will likely be carried out by a new countywide board that is majority Memphis.

“This is the Shelby County school system. The people run the system,” she said. “There will be a new board at some point. … All the fear is unfounded.”

When Pickler made the same point about MCS board members trying to dominate a new countywide board, Hart responded.

“No one has said anything about being back in charge,” she said. “This is not about the adults; this is about the children.”

At both forums, Pickler touted the county school system’s recent state report card on student achievement, which was straight As compared to Ds and Fs that dominated the MCS report card.

Opposing consolidation and trying for special school district status that would checkmate school consolidation, Pickler said, is “an opportunity to maintain a legacy of excellence.”

“I always love to hear that fantasy world that Shelby County is such a perfect school system,” Hart said. “Shelby County had no score above 50 and they are considered As. We have 30s and 40s in the Memphis City Schools. So, there is not a large gap that somehow people believe there is between the two school systems. Truthfully, we are both struggling.”

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