Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman would bring lots of political leverage with him should he mediate the coming merger of schools in Shelby County.
Tennessee Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, who suggested Huffman as an “honest broker” between countywide school board leaders and suburban leaders, said Huffman has leverage in the state’s role as the major funder of public education.
“The question we have in this community is how do you educate 150,000 people in an efficient effective and an accountable way? What is the structure that can do that?” Kyle said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”
“I think what the process needs is an honest broker. He is our state education commissioner. He does have a skill set that would be very valuable, and I think he would bring something to the table.”
Kyle was on the show hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, with Ken Hoover, a member of the Germantown School Board.
The program can be seen on The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.
There could be some attempt at discussions along those lines this week. It is not known if Huffman will be a part of those talks.
The Germantown School Board was abolished along with the five other municipal school districts by a Nov. 27 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.
“The fast lane has been closed but the road is still open,” Hoover said of the possibility of municipal school districts.
Mays has not yet ruled on a challenge by the Shelby County Commission to two other state laws that allow for the creation of municipal school districts after the August 2013 merger of the city and county school systems.
Hoover also said there are options short of that that could be talked about. But the municipal school districts are what suburban leaders prefer and will continue to pursue at least for now.
“I think it’s clear that this entire controversy was born of politics,” Hoover said. “It’s grown up in a political conversation. It would be terrific to get the politics out of the conversation and talk about what’s best for the children.
“Never lose sight of the fact that the money that flows from the state and the county is a significant component of this discussion.”
It is that state funding, a far larger share of funding to any school system in Shelby County than local funding, that Kyle said makes Huffman a better mediator than even Mays – who tried unsuccessfully to mediate a settlement on the municipal schools question before his ruling last month.
“Cases settle when people believe their risk of losing is at such a level that they need to take what they can get,” Kyle said. “What we’ve had for the last two years are people who don’t think they are going to lose. Until people feel that there’s a chance that what they want to have happen isn’t going to happen – they are not going to talk.”
Kyle raised the possibility of Huffman telling either or both sides in the dispute there are scenarios being considered by them that he would specifically oppose. That could include parts of the merger or the municipal schools process governed by the administration, not the legislature.
“I just believe Commissioner Huffman could walk in a room … and with whatever positions people have and say, ‘I don’t really think you’re going to get a chance to do that,’” he said. “You’ve got someone who’s got that kind of authority.”
Hoover, however, sees the money issue a different way. He points to the passage of sales tax hike referendum questions in each of the suburban towns and cities in August and the failure of a countywide sales tax hike with half of the funding going to education among city voters and those in unincorporated Shelby County on the November ballot.
“You start to get a sense that that common ground is going to be hard to find,” Hoover said of the different election outcomes.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is giving much the same response he gave in 2012 when reporters asked what his stand would be on bills that seek to amend the relevant laws further. He would rather that doesn’t happen, but his response to it would depend on what legislators send to his desk.
He commented in Memphis Nov. 29, the day before Kyle sent his letter urging Huffman as a broker in talks and four days before Kyle went public with the letter.
“There’s no way this hasn’t been a distraction. … I just can’t believe that it hasn’t impacted student performance in some way,” Haslam said of the legislative action and the federal court litigation. “I’m not going to say we should totally preclude any other action happening. I really want the focus to be let’s go back to teaching in the classrooms.”