Two possible ways of stopping the referendum before it happens are taking another vote on the school board and deferral by the Shelby County Election Commission. But even with Sara Lewis taking the seat of surrender proponent Sharon Webb, there is barely a day to act before the Election Commission sets the election date on Wednesday.
Lewis and Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. were sworn in Monday to loud cheers from their supporters. The outspoken and emotional Lewis promised "I'm not going to change, ladies and gentlemen," while Whalum said "you elected me to serve the children, not surrender them." Neither one said anything about trying to call a special meeting of their colleagues to reconsider last month's 5-4 vote. In fact, two of those colleagues, Martavius Jones and Betty Mallott, will be sworn in separately next week at a scheduled work session on Monday. Jones, one of the main proponents of charter surrender, said he was not invited to Monday's ceremony.
Superintendent Kriner Cash welcomed both board members, warned of "distractions," and promised to carry on. "I will continue to work for as long as I continue to work," he said.
Over at the Shelby County board room, board president David Pickler and Superintendent John Aitken held a press conference to warn of dire consequences of a forced merger of city and county schools including no transition period, voided or voidable contracts, city school closings, endangered optional and charter schools, loss of $78 million of city funding for MCS, different starting times, transportation headaches, and staff reductions excluding teachers. They said the current Shelby County school board would remain in place until August of 2012 when three of the seven members would be up for reelection.
"This is not an issue about race," said Pickler, standing with five other white men who represent a county system that is approximately 45 percent minority. He said SCS would move forward with its legislative agenda, including special school district status, unless Memphis calls off the referendum. He also said county residents outside of Memphis should be able to vote in the referendum and a legal challenge is likely on behalf of the 30 percent with no voice.
"If the city school board voted to rescind the earlier action, then that puts everything back on the table," Pickler said. "We're willing to sit down and engage in diligent negotiation and long-term study of every issue. The legislative or legal actions would no longer be necessary."
Aitken said "the tone of the conversation in the meetings" along with meeting personally with Cash, the city and county mayors, and board members made him more optimistic about reaching an agreement that has eluded city and county representatives for decades.
"The disappointing thing was, gosh, we had some opportunities maybe to pull some best practices together," Aitken said.
He said the threat of special district status "was part of the tone but I don't think it was a hindrance to the talks. There may be parts of that that benefit both systems. One of the premises of special districts is establishing permanent boundaries. As we move forward and we rezone, city of Memphis annexation causes us to twist around like we did with Chimney Rock last year. That has been part of the city of Memphis since 2002 but there was never a facility that they could put the kids in, so there was always an agreement with Shelby County Schools to continue educating those kids. Setting the boundaries would eliminate some of that."