Any illusions of unity among pro-consolidation members of the council and school board were shattered Tuesday. In the council meeting — with October elections no doubt weighing on members' minds — councilmen and the mayor took turns verbally beating up on the school board over the issue of funding. Then a few hours later, in a school board meeting the same board members who voted in December to surrender the MCS charter voted to delay the start of school until Memphis forks over a $55 million tax payment that represents about five percent of the system's funding.
The upshot of the two meetings is the appearance if not the reality of chaos in Memphis. Taking a cue from suburbanites, Memphis residents are apt to say "a plague on both of your houses" rather than sorting out the complicated and conflicting details.
To summarize, council members and the mayor think the school system's claim that it is owed $151 million is nonsense. Myron Lowery called it "misleading and inaccurate." Shea Flinn said the city owes MCS, at most, about $5 million, with a $160 million counterclaim possibly wiping that out too. Council attorney Allan Wade said the city won't give MCS any payment until the counterclaim is heard but has budgeted more than enough money in case the claim fails.
"We will hear their budget in August so why is their such a panic on their part?" Wade said.
Wanda Halbert said MCS refuses to state its enrollment (which determines funding) and its claim of money owed is "disingenuous."
Wharton said $3 million for MCS from the city is a "just obligation" but the rest is not. The mayor said he told Cash on July 12th that the city had fully funded MCS for fiscal year 2012. Wharton seemed a bit stunned. His relationship with Cash appears to be badly broken.
On and on it went.
Janice Fullilove told Memphians not to be "bamboozled" by school system shenanigans.
"Somebody is lying to you but it is not the city council," she said.
Jim Strickland said the council has met its obligation.
And a few hours later, the school board, after parsing the words "rescind" and "amend" endlessly, gave the council a swift kick in the teeth.
Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart, who led the charter surrender that Cash staunchly opposed, were suddenly in the superintendent's corner. All of last year's talk about Memphians being double taxed has suddenly been forgotten. Cash and board members Jeff Warren and Kenneth Whalum, who predicted financial chaos six months ago, were at least consistent.
What has happened is that both the council and school board have hunkered down in their legal positions, while U.S. District Judge Samuel H. Mays makes his decision about when and how the city and county systems will be merged. A complicated case founded on idealism and a vision of a single school system has now become hopelessly muddied by money grabbing and politics. The members of the Shelby County school board must be shaking their heads in wonder, or perhaps saying "I told you so." As for the students and parents and employees of MCS, they are left to wonder what to make of the show and when school will start and, perhaps, why they would ever want to go there.
See also Jackson Baker's take on the MCS-city government conflict.