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VOL. 126 | NO. 42 | Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Divisions Remain As Schools Talks Continue

By Bill Dries

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Memphis City Schools board members continue a series of town hall meetings on the schools consolidation referendum with different opinions about what the ballot question means.

And city schools attorney Dorsey Hopson added a caution about expressing their political opinions at the sessions paid for with public money.

“What if they ask me how I will vote?” asked MCS board member Jeff Warren.

“Tell them to see you after the meeting,” Hopson answered.

The board still showed signs of a deep political division at Monday’s meeting, the last of the school board before the March 8 election.

Memphis City Schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash added to that by saying it’s not clear what voters in the March 8 referendum are deciding.

Cash challenged board members to fill in the blank with sentences beginning with, “A yes vote is a vote for … “ and “A no vote is a vote for ….”

“I can guarantee you there is a lot of confusion about what is being asked by that question,” Cash said. “Something of this importance and this magnitude should not be voted on viscerally or emotionally.”

Board member Tomeka Hart, however, thought the question was “inappropriate.”

“The only way to answer that is that’s a political question.”

“It was an effort to inform,” Cash replied.

It was also the latest indication to critics of Cash’s opposition to the ballot question although he insisted he’s not taking a position. Cash allied himself with Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken last month in backing the Norris-Todd bill in the Tennessee Legislature that delayed any schools consolidation for two and a half years.

Meanwhile, the Shelby County Commission plans to appoint a 25-member countywide school board on March 28. The deadline for applicants to submit their resumes and fill out an application is March 22. The commission would interview the contenders on March 23 in a process that could take several days.

“I think that we’re probably going to get sued,” Chism said when asked what would happen next.

The appointed school board is intended to be a transition body until 2012 when the first elections for that board would be held and the County Commission could move to make the school board smaller.

The resolutions passed Monday include language indicating the commission intends to appoint the seven incumbent county school board members to the seats they now hold. It is an acknowledgment that several legal opinions including one from the Tennessee attorney general hold that the elected terms of the county school board members cannot be shortened.

Four of the seven board members were just elected to four-year terms that started in September. The remaining three are on the board through August 2012.

But the assurances in the resolution stopped short of an absolute commitment.

“I think that we should protect those county school board commissioners – those that have got terms that expire in 2012,” Chism said. “By then if the court actions take place, we probably would be through with all litigation and everything else and they won’t be there anyhow.”

If Chism’s point of view prevails with seven votes, that would mean county school board chairman David Pickler, the most visible opponent of the schools merger, would not be reappointed.

But Commissioner Steve Mulroy said the commission was “going out of our way” to make sure the seven county incumbents serve out their terms. He said questions about whether all seven would be reappointed were “much ado about nothing.”

“It’s really semantics,” Mulroy said.

The three commissioners opposing all of the resolutions and the ordinance said moving to fill all 25 positions is a significant switch from the original plan to create 18 new districts to include the city and appoint members to only those districts. Commissioners Terry Roland, Wyatt Bunker and Chris Thomas also opposed the original plan.

“We’re legislating like a bunch of elementary school students ... throwing a bunch of crud on the wall and seeing what sticks,” Bunker said.

“I don’t think anyone here needs to apologize ... for why Memphis should be represented on a countywide school board,” countered Commissioner Mike Ritz.

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