Wednesday, February 28, 2001

A Lost Cause

Such would seem to be the fate of a controversial bill for school consolidation.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 28, 2001 at 4:00 AM

(NASHVILLE) -- Some of the most quoted lines from poetry are those from Yeats' "Second Coming," which go: "The best lack all conviction/ While the worst are full of passionate intensity." Forget, for the time being, "best" and "worst"; the jury is going to be out for a while as to which side is which in the great school-consolidation struggle, which showed up virtually out of nowhere last week.

Other than this distancing from a value judgment which we're going to permit ourselves, the Yeats lines work just fine if reconstructed to read: "The city board lacks all conviction/ While the county board is full of passionate intensity."

For, as Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler made plain Tuesday at the annual "Day on the Hill" of the Tennessee Schools Board Association (TSBA) in the state capital, once the state legislature let the consolidation cat out of the bag -- in the form of House Bill 273 -- the county board lost no time in uniting to go to war against the bill, which would limit all Tennessee counties to a single,unified school board and would, in effect, mandate school consolidation.

With impressive unanimity, the county board members put themselves on record as opposing the bill. And, Pickler maintains, stopped it in its tracks. "If Shelby County hadn't raised hell about this bill, it stood a good chance of going through. I think that chance is over with now, though," he says.

By "Shelby County," it turns out, he means the non-Memphis parts of the county; further, it turns out it means the county school board. Taking it a step further, it could mean Chairman Pickler himself, who took the lead in organizing opposition to HB 273 -- although his board colleagues were shoulder to shoulder with him from the very start.

By contrast, the city school board has waffled, big-time. President Barbara Prescott and board member Michael Hooks at first made bold to sponsor a resolution to support consolidation. Though the bill itself was not referenced, the timing of the effort certainly had the effect of underwriting the bill. In short order, city schools superintendent Johnnie B. Watson said Aye to the bill, and so did Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.

A "Study" Is Called For

And then the city school board started to cave. Those members who favored consolidation in principle -- most probably a majority, though the lack of a formal vote made moot the issue of a head count -- began to back away from HB 273.

Prescott and Hooks withdrew their resolution, and Superintendent Watson agreed to a suggestion that the board "study" the idea of consolidation. That vote will come Monday night, and since it lacks utterly any controversy (not to mention any of the aforesaid conviction), it is sure to pass, probably without a Nay vote.

Watson tried his hardest not to, but he gave an ever-so-slight nod of the head when he was asked if a "study" of the school consolidation issue wasn't the same thing as an obituary for a legislative measure whose life or death will be decided, most probably, within a matter of days.

That's usually what a "study" amounts to when any authoritative body opts to do one, and studies of this particular issue date back some three decades (see City Reporter, page 6).

Prescott, Hooks, and other board members believed to favor city-county school consolidation tried to make clear their continued interest in the subject at a TSBA breakfast Tuesday morning at the Sheraton Hotel at Legislative Plaza. "It isn't that we don't favor consolidation. It's just that this particular bill isn't necessarily the way to go about it," Prescott said. She, Hooks, and board member Lora Jobe talked up a strategy whereby the city board would vote to surrender its charter -- thereby automatically falling under the purview of the county board.

The charter-surrender idea, of course, is a variant of one floated by Herenton back in the mid-1990s when -- somewhat intrepidly and prematurely -- he first raised the issue of consolidation. Herenton's balloon drew verbal shotgun blasts of the sort that have greeted the latest consolidation talk.

A point of interest in that vintage proposal was Herenton's insistence that he wanted to try to achieve governmental consolidation of city and county with minimal impact on the two existing school systems. Indeed, then and for years to come he would footnote any remarks he made about consolidation with the qualifier that the city and county schools should have common funding but independent governance.

The mayor's attempts to reassure suburban opponents on the score of school-system independence didn't convince opponents of consolidation, who suspected them of being a smoke screen. And Herenton's relatively easy abandonment of the qualifier last week, when he wholeheartedly endorsed the current school-consolidation measure, prompted many a chorus of "told-you-so" out in the skeptical suburbs.

Herenton's subsequent declaration that matters of race and class were involved in the opposition to HB 273 contributed to the hardening of opposition on the county board and in outer Shelby County at large.

Moreover, the TSBA itself -- composed of all state boards, large and small, city and county, east, middle, and west -- was able to adopt a formal resolution of opposition to the school consolidation bill without visible or audible opposition Tuesday.

Not a "Chinaman's Chance"

That doesn't mean that all districts see eye-to-eye on this or any other issue, of course. Prescott and Hooks both made a point of stressing their opposition to another bill supported formally by the TSBA -- one which would allow for the proliferation of special school districts. The measure -- favored by the Shelby County board -- would amount to a resumption of the "toy town" struggle of 1997, Hooks said.

That battle stemmed from a bill, sneaked through that year's General Assembly without attracting attention, that would have allowed virtually any unincorporated suburb in Tennessee, regardless of size, to become an independent "city." After what Herenton described as a "life-and-death" struggle between urban and suburban forces, the state Supreme Court decided the issue in Memphis' and other cities' favor by declaring the bill unconstitutional.

As matters stand, the current city-county school consolidation bill has little or no chance. City board member Carl Johnson, who professes himself skeptical about the virtues of consolidation, referred to HB 273's unexpected emergence into the light of day as a "fluke." (It had come out of the House Education K-12 subcommittee with a 7-5 vote.) And Pickler noted with satisfaction that House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, a nominal supporter of the bill, was now talking of the opportunity for "dialogue" which HB 273 presented.

"When a bill's backer starts talking like that, that tells you something about its chances. I don't think it's got a Chinaman's chance of getting out of full [House Education] committee," said Pickler. Even so, he said, "technically the bill is still alive, so we're going to keep fighting it until it's laid to rest."

Under the circumstances, that laying to rest may come sooner rather than later. To switch from Yeats to Shakespeare, the proponents of school consolidation may have let "the native hue of [their] resolution sickly o'er with the pale cast of thought ... and lose the name of action."

Cohen's Day Out On the Hill

One of the guest speakers at Tuesday's breakfast of the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA) in Nashville was state Senator Steve Cohen, the Midtown Memphis Democrat who had, as he told the assembled board members, just "graduated."

Cohen referred to the final passage two weeks ago of his perennial resolution to permit a statewide vote on a Tennessee lottery. When it passed the House easily (after making it through the Senate previously without a vote to spare), the bill -- like the November 2002 referendum which it authorizes -- had survived a long struggle.

"It took 17 years," Cohen observed to the TSBA members. "It felt like going all the way from kindergarten through college."

Cohen's lottery triumph is not the only success he's having these days. He may be on something of a roll. A current bill of his to ban cell-phone use by teenage drivers is given good chances of passage, as is a measure allowing bearers of gun permits to wear their weapons into places where package liquor is sold. -- JB

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