Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On Taking a Position

Posted By on Wed, Jan 5, 2011 at 9:14 AM

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News bulletin: mayors Wharton and Luttrell are not taking a position on school charter surrender.

This is shocking and Un-American. Like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and any self-respecting columnist, blogger, or commenter, we are all supposed to have a position on everything from school consolidation to the European debt crisis, the designated hitter, Jay Leno, and True Grit. I know this because I watch television, read comment strings, and am on the receiving end of urgent messages from friends, colleagues, and strangers who are wound up about lots of things I know and care nothing about.

As a card-carrying columnist, my standard position is "take a position." Like the Wall Street Journal says, who needs "on the one hand, on the other hand editorials?"

But in this case the mayors are right for the time being, which could change today, tomorrow, or the next day.

For one thing, the mayors are not commenters. What they say might actually matter. As of today, it is not certain whether or when there will be a referendum on surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter. Once those questions are answered, their non-position could change. It's hard to imagine them not saying how they would vote (only Memphis residents get to vote) if it comes to that and a red-hot campaign lasting a month or more.

For another thing, they have already taken a position, probably moot at this point, that there should not be a referendum and that the city and county school boards and superintendents and state legislators should keep talking. So in a way they are being consistent by staying above the fray.

On the other hand (forget what I said earlier), this is the biggest issue, as the mayors admit, that has faced Memphians in decades. You play the cards you're dealt. How can the most important elected leaders in Memphis and Shelby County not take a position on something everyone else in Memphis is going to have to vote yes or no on?

Because this is the damnedest thing. This is a bolt of lightning. This came out of the blue. If you search for "charter surrender" on local news sites you won't find much of anything before 2010. The schools beat, trust me, is not the most desirable one in the business. Long meetings, blowhards, awards ceremonies, two systems, low voter turnouts. If you have kids in school, then your own school is tremendously interesting and schools in general are less interesting, but otherwise you probably are more interested in your taxes, the war, the economy, and your job.

Then, a couple of months ago, blam!, out of the blue came a proposal from a couple of school board members to surrender the charter. The nine city school board members are as close to unpaid public servants as you can get. Some of them were elected with less than 5 or 10 percent of the vote in their district. Compared to a school board election, a city council election is a presidential campaign. The school board meets in near anonymity much of the time, until recently. Only five of them voted to put charter surrender to a public vote, and one of those, Sharon Webb, is no longer on the board.

Ordinarily, getting an issue before the public in a referedum requires either thousands of signatures, approval of a legislative body, and a drumbeat of publicity. Think the Herenton recall campaign a few years ago, which never made it to the ballot. Charter surrender came out of the blue. As opponent Kenneth Whalum Jr. has said, it is doubtful that any board member who ran on such an idea would have been elected.

But Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart — the board members who ramrodded this — tapped into something. Or several somethings — the failed consolidation vote, resentment of Shelby County residents' resentment of Memphis, general dissatisfaction with public education, the stunning landslide victory of Cohen over Herenton, and a general if vague feeling that things are slipping away in Memphis and appointing another blue-ribbon study committee is not going to cut it. A whiff of change is in the air. A window of opportunity. A wave that might not come again for a while.

And, lo and behold, they discovered that the board could vote to allow citizens to surrender the charter. Using the vast resources available to trained professional journalists (aka "the Google"), the earliest references I can find to charter surrender as a timely option are a 2008 study by the University of Memphis and a 2008 book by Rhodes political science professor Marcus Pohlmann. There was a lot of talk for many years before that of Shelby County schools getting special district status, but, as Tomeka Hart and G. A. Hardaway have pointed out, it was mostly confined to Shelby County firebrands and the Tennessee General Assembly, where a single Memphis member kept it bottled up in committee. As Hart said, there was no hue and cry about how this would rock the world.

Will the referendum be approved? Hedge Alert! I won't be surprised if it fails. Going back to the Herenton days, there is no comparable groundswell of outrage. The chattering class, as they say, seems to be in the vanguard of this. I have not heard anyone who actually has to implement the merger of two big school systems come out unequivocally for it, and that includes some people who know first hand what a mess MCS is. Consolidation, remember, barely passed in Memphis last year. The teacher's union and its allies have yet to ramp up a campaign, and they will actually vote, unlike the majority of Memphis registered voters. Say what you will about Kriner Cash, but the man has experience, pride, and common sense; why would he remain on the job as interim superintendent for possibly as long as a year or more if the board and the voters, in effect, decided to cashier him?

As for the mayors, my position is that they should take a position when it is time to take a position if their position has changed from not taking a position. Clear?

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