Next Moves

Referendum aftermath brings bevy of critical decisions

By Bill Dries

The two tracks to schools consolidation are about to cross now that Memphis voters have settled the consolidation referendum that is the mainline for the journey to one public school system in Shelby County.

Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler, left, and superintendent John Aitken react to last week’s vote to merge Shelby County and Memphis City schools. “Our focus has got to remain on a plan that benefits the children,” Pickler said. Political maneuvering – including legal action  – is sure to follow. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

The day after the March 8 referendum every existing Shelby County and Memphis City schools board member got a letter from County Commissioner Mike Carpenter.

Carpenter, chairman of the commission’s general government committee, wrote the county school board members that their seven seats are up for appointment as part of a new 25-member countywide board that includes the city of Memphis.

The letters are the first indication of what the post-referendum phase of the sprawling political controversy will be like.

And it seems to be about choices.

“There is no intent to cut such terms short,” Carpenter wrote. “To avoid any arguments to the contrary, the County Commission desires to make an effort to keep the seven Shelby County School Board members intact by asking each … to follow the established appointment process.”

In other words, fill out an application and be interviewed by the County Commission later this month as it pursues the second track to schools consolidation.

MCS board members didn’t get the letter that said no one is trying to short their terms. They got a notice of the pending process and an enclosed application to fill out along with a time to come for interviews.

The commission’s action is the tip of the spear that is a disputed second and more immediate way to merge the county’s two public school systems than the one that began with this month’s referendum followed by a two-and-a-half-year planning process.

The county school system amended its federal lawsuit on the consolidation move in general to include opposition to the commission’s construction of the new school board.

County school board chairman David Pickler and MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson reiterated again last week that they believe both school boards will remain intact up to the August 2013 transition date in the recently enacted Norris-Todd state law on schools


“The state of the law in Tennessee is the Norris-Todd law,” Pickler said when asked what would happen if the 25-member school board tries to act. “That law states very clearly that the two boards of education continue to operate over the course of the two-and-a-half-year planning period. We’re going to abide by the law.”

“All of those issues are ultimately going to be fleshed out in court,” Hopson said. “Unless a court tells the board to stop operating, then the board will continue operating until the transition.”

That transition plan features a 21-member planning commission to map out the 2013 change.

Five would be appointed by Pickler, five by MCS board president Freda Williams and five by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam as well as Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and state House speaker Beth Harwell appoint one person each and each serve as ex-officio members of the group.

Pickler is talking with Luttrell and Williams about how to make what are politically critical choices that could determine the credibility of the planning commission and its work.

In a move that speaks volumes about the lingering differences of opinion on the city school board, Williams will need board approval for her choices.

The city of Memphis will probably wait until the March 8 vote certification to file its lawsuit challenging the Norris-Todd law as an unconstitutional rule change once the referendum was already on the ballot.

Memphis City Schools board members and superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash, center, react to the results of last week’s vote to merge county and city schools. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

Meanwhile, more than 120 citizens had either expressed interest or completed an application by Election Day for the County Commission’s 25-member school board. No former or current county school board members had done either.

The deadline for applications is March 22 with interviews set for March 23 and a County Commission vote on the appointments scheduled for March 28.

County Commission chairman Sidney Chism has said he believes the three county board members serving terms through August 2012 should be appointed to the new board, but not those elected just last year, including Pickler, to new four-year terms that run through August 2014.

Ultimately, the appointments depend on who can get seven votes on the 13-member commission.

With the votes from March 8 counted and certified later this month, the historic political moment will shift to courtrooms and conference rooms and the adjoining buildings near the Mid-South Fairgrounds that are headquarters to the Memphis City and Shelby County school systems.

But the two-to-one vote in favor of schools consolidation makes this more than a return to the political maneuvering before the election.

The difference is a simple message delivered by about 17 percent of the city’s voters on a complex issue that won’t be resolved for a while.

“The citizens of Memphis have spoken resoundingly – those who voted – that they want to see our two school systems – separate for so long – come together, work together, go to school together, live together, help each other and be together for the rest of history in this county,” said MCS superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash.

Cash’s statement the day after the election demonstrated the political power of the vote. He wasn’t the most vocal opponent of school consolidation. But he certainly wasn’t a clear advocate.

And he remains no fan of the politics surrounding the issue.

Cash cautioned that the vote signals a new phase that will require “level five leadership” from political leaders who he said “will have to up their game from where it has been.”

Cash is clearly still apprehensive about what the coming transition will mean for the reform efforts he came to Memphis to lead.

“Two more years to me is a long time and a lot can be accomplished,” he said. “I’d like to see that through.”

Cash said he still has to “educate about the truth in progress” – that MCS isn’t “bloated” and is becoming more efficient.

He wants to hire an outside expert to help with the transition planning.

“I do not think we should be doing that every day,” he said citing other more immediate daily priorities.

Pickler said there needs to be some details worked out about who pays for the transition planning. He too talked of the need for experts either at the state level or beyond but with local control of a process with no precedent in Tennessee.

“There is no template to build from,” Pickler said. “That’s a new path that is going to consume us for the next two and a half years.”

He called for an audit of both systems at the outset.

“You’ve got to have a thorough understanding of where both systems are,” he said. “Only from there can we begin to understand what we have to do to put together a plan that will put the school systems together.”

Cash acknowledged the differences in the two school systems especially in programs provided by MCS that are “essential and important but not necessarily mandated.”

His short list of those includes optional schools, a program Pickler has said the county school system does not agree with philosophically. The list also includes driver’s education, ROTC and some special education programs.

Haslam pledged state advice and expertise the morning after the vote.

He had always put a lot of emphasis on the need for a transition period and expressed little concern or conviction about the part of the Norris-Todd bill that allows for special or municipal suburban school districts.

MCS board member Tomeka Hart dismissed the suburban possibility post referendum.

“The systems will be merged before any special districts are ready,” she said. “We would still have a countywide system where everybody in the county … will be responsible for funding the education of every child that attends what becomes the countywide school system.”

Pickler, who has championed special school district status for the last decade, also downplayed what until now he had regarded as an urgent political matter.

“That is a bridge to cross way down the road,” he said. “The job of this committee is clearly defined in the law. What may happen down the road in relation to special school districts is something to be held well down the road.”

Meanwhile, as Cash talked about what he could get done before August 2013, Haslam was incorporating the schools merger as part of the state’s education reform effort he inherited from former Gov. Phil Bredesen and is now trying to make his own.

“The threads for reform are there,” Haslam said in a written statement. “The opportunity is to take them and weave them into a unified approach where there are the best teachers, great principals, strong elected leaders and supportive parents and community.”

Haslam left no doubt that the first issue to land on his desk as governor is now about a merger that will take place.

“The voters in Memphis spoke clearly that the schools in Memphis should be merged with Shelby County,” Haslam said. “The issues in Memphis and Shelby County are about more than a vote or the development of a plan. The vote has occurred and a plan will be created."