Monday, December 13, 2010

With a Schools Summit at Hand, the Questions and Dangers Proliferate

Posted By on Mon, Dec 13, 2010 at 8:20 AM

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As the current week begins, most local attention will focus on an ad hoc “summit” meeting scheduled for Monday afternoon, apparently at the Memphis School Board’s building and involving all the players in the ongoing nuclear showdown over the schools — both the city and county boards, city council members and county commission members, and, reportedly mayors A C Wharton of Memphis and Mark Luttrell of Shelby County
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And, as that attempt to avert a showdown occurs, it will necessarily entwine with another developing drama — the unanticipated resurrection of the general city/county consolidation issue.

When two resolutions battled each other at the Shelby County Commission’s public meeting last Monday — one endorsing consolidation, the other condemning it and proposing a secessionist alternative — most people probably wondered which one was more irrelevant.

The fact is, neither is irrelevant. Both have new lives.

When first introduced in committee, the consolidation resolution introduced by Steve Mulroy seemed to be drastically at odds with an overwhelming rejection of city/county consolidation rendered by the voters of Shelby County barely a month beforehand.

That sentiment was at the heart of Commissioner Terry Roland’s surprise counter-resolution, which would have put the commission on record as favoring a constitutional effort on the part of suburban communities to extricate themselves from the Shelby County jurisdiction and unite with some acquiescent adjacent county. Even Roland observed that such an idea might seem crazy, but “no crazier than bringing up consolidation again after it got beat down.”

Neither resolution would pass — Mulroy’s failing by a single vote, Roland’s collecting only four votes, though its sponsor promised to bring it back as a corrective whenever needed.

Presto! A week later, both resolutions could have new life — especially if the current collision-course arcs of the Memphis and Shelby County school boards head toward consummation of either or both of the nuclear options each has proposed — the county board to seek legislation enabling a separate special school district for non-Memphis schools; the city board to surrender its charter, thereby forcing school consolidation.

Both prospects dramatize the irony that the issue of school consolidation — the supposed third rail that was purposely left out of the year-long consolidation fight because of its high-powered controversy — could be the first issue resolved in the post-referendum era.

The primum mobile of this development was, of course, the news that the Shelby County School Board, which had insistently sought Special School District status for the county schools in the last several General Assemblies, only to be turned away, would take advantage of the extraordinary Republican majorities created by the 2010 general election and get the deed done with the legislature that convenes in January

The city board’s move came next .with members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart proposing that the board surrender its charter — a move that would automatically consolidate the school systems. As of now, the Memphis board is scheduled to meet next Monday to vote on whether to approve such a step and to call a referendum for voter approval.

This week's summit will intervene — and all possibilities are live: a truce in place, with neither side pushing its initiative; a compromise plan, perhaps brokered by Wharton and Luttrell; or a breakdown in communications, with the race on toward an Armageddon in the New Year.

Behind the scenes, the players were rethinking the situation — sometimes in surprising ways. City councilman Jim Strickland noted that consolidation of the schools could save city government as much as $70 million annually in direct contributions to MCS. But he made a point at last week’s meeting of the council’s education committee, one attended by MCS superintendent Kriner Cash and other Board members, of saying that either of the nuclear options would be a “disaster.”

And anybody who thinks that the brewing school issue will be resolved along the lines of the recent consolidation vote — with city (and Democratic) voters split and county (and Republican) voters unalterably opposed — could be in for a surprise and a re-think.

One indication: At the Shelby County Republicans’ annual Christmas party on Saturday, a sizeable group of GOP activists, residents of both city and county, gathered on a back porch to express their openness toward the concept of an MCS charter surrender and resultant school consolidation and their concern about a special county school district.

One such, John Williams of Germantown, summed it up by noting what he saw as the possible tax advantages of an amalgamated district, along with the streamlining of school personnel and the simplification of such issues as school location and construction. The group focused less on Realpolitik and more on issues of educational betterment than one might have anticipated.

Nobody has really figured out the total fiscal implications of the competing scenarios, and there’s the pending fallout of either on those two competing county commission resolutions — suspended for the moment.

In particular, there are myriad complications in the secession scenario called for in Roland’s resolution:

Would both unincorporated areas of Shelby County and the county’s municipalities qualify for the incorporation in an adjoining county that the resolution addresses?

Since state law mandates that each county contain a minimum of 500 square miles, which of the leftover 284 square miles in Shelby County would qualify for secession and which might be left out?

And with two-thirds approval required of the governing bodies of both Shelby County and the adjacent county, just how likely is that in anything like the near future?

The very posing of those questions may seem absurd — as well as vexing. But a year ago, say, the same statement could have been made about the conundra now accruing to the Memphis and Shelby County schools. Those questions have to be answered first.

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