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VOL. 126 | NO. 5 | Friday, January 7, 2011

Schools Controversy Spotlight Moves From Election Prep

By Bill Dries

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This may be where the dispute between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools goes to court and drags in more political entities.

The dimmed prospect of a February referendum of Memphis voters on an MCS charter surrender has turned the spotlight from the preparations for an election to a race across the new year’s calendar between an election and special school district legislation in the Tennessee Legislature.

The next moves center on whether the Memphis City Council will take up a resolution approving the charter surrender referendum at its Jan. 18 meeting or earlier, whether the council or someone else will seek a declaratory judgment in Chancery Court on the legal question of whether it must act for an election to take place or whether the council will try to stay on the sidelines.

The Shelby County Election Commission did not set a special election on the charter surrender question this week. A move of a referendum to a later date sometime in March makes it more likely the Legislature could vote on if not pass special school district legislation for county schools before a referendum.

That would checkmate the consolidation of the two school systems, which would be the effect of an MCS charter surrender.

The decision was based on a legal opinion from Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins. It says the council must approve having the referendum before it can go on the ballot. City attorneys do not agree.

Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini and other election commissioners say the legal advice of the state elections coordinator governs what they can and cannot do.

“He’s the next pay grade higher than us,” Giannini said. “There are conflicts in the law. We saw that. We recognized that. We sought the opinion. He has ruled.”

Election Commission attorney Monice Hagler said if the city differs with that ruling it could seek a declaratory judgment in Chancery Court. Goins cites a 1961 state law on school charter surrenders.

“Although there may be an argument that the approval of the board of city commissioners is not constitutionally required, neither this office nor the Election Commission has the discretion to ignore the requirement,” Goins wrote in the letter.

A 2003 legal opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office appears to differ. And the difference appears to be the private act that created the Memphis City Schools system as a special school district. The opinion also deals with the 1961 law.

“By private act, administration of the Memphis City Schools is vested in the school board, a governing body that is independently elected,” the opinion by then Attorney General Paul Summers reads. “Under the proposed interpretation, a city council would be authorized to initiate the transfer of a system it does not directly control and, in effect, deprive an independently created governmental entity of its powers.”

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 0 131 1,047
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 20 39 190
BUILDING PERMITS 0 305 3,056
BANKRUPTCIES 17 135 753
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 53 329
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0