Thursday, January 13, 2011

It Gets Curiouser: MSC Board Votes to Meet and Consider New Stand-Down Plan from County

Adoption of plan would require rescinding of December 20 charter-surrender vote; effect uncertain on newly ordered referendum.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 13, 2011 at 10:50 PM

Board member Kenneth Whalum (right) listens as MSC attorney Hopson presents county plan.
  • JB
  • Board member Kenneth Whalum (right) listens as MSC attorney Hopson presents county plan.
A day after Chancellor Walter Evans approved a consent decree requiring a citywide referendum on the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter, the MCS Board took one small step Thursday night toward second-guessing itself on the matter.

Presented by MSC attorney Dorsey Hopson with a provisional stand-down plan prepared by the Shelby County Schools board, presumably with input from principals on either side of the essential issues, the MSC board voted 5-3 to hold a forthcoming “work session” meeting to consider adopting the plan.

The plan, which Hopson stressed he was merely presenting for his board to react to (“They didn’t share it,” when asked a question about the county board’s reasoning) , calls for both sides in the current dispute to back away from their “nuclear options. ”

In the case of Memphis City Schools, this would mean a rescinding of its vote to request a referendum on charter surrender; in the case of Shelby County Schools, it means a pledge not to act pursuant to any legislature measure striking down the existing prohibition against new special school districts and/or any private act to give Shelby County schools SSD status.

The county board’s pledge is contingent upon the city board’s action to rescind its vote of December 20, which requested a citywide referendum to approve the surrender of the MSC charter, thereby compelling, with a vote of approval, the city system’s de facto merger with Shelby County Schools.

Other provisions would guarantee either party the right to seek injunctive relief if the other party acted in defiance of the agreement, and would call for both parties to solicit through a joint RFP (request for proposal) an expert (or experts) to “study issues relating to school governance and funding,” including the two systems’ current status quo and all other recently discussed alternatives, including consolidation and special school district status for either system.

A “Governance and Funding Study Team” would be appointed jointly by the two systems, including parents, employees and board members representing both systems, as well as the two system superintendents. The “team” would prepare a detailed recommendation for a referendum to be voted on by residents of the entire county.

The terms of the agreement would hold for a minimum of one year and would expire after three years.

The MSC Board voted to consider the plan at a specially called work session in the near future but apparently would not make a decision on adopting it without calling yet a second meeting to do so. That vote was 5-3, with Board chairman Freda Williams, Jeff Warren, Sara Lewis, Betty Mallott, and Kenneth Whalum voting aye, and Martavius Jones, Patrice Robinson, and Stephanie Gatewood voting no. Tomeka Hart, a strong proponent of charter surrender, was absent.

With the ayes and noes reversed, the Board had previously rejected a motion to call a meeting merely to consider “facts” relating to the various alternatives, without specifically focusing on the proposed plan.

As Thursday night's vote indicated, the advocates of charter surrender can probably count on four solid votes not to rescind. Betty Mallott, who voted against charter surrender on December 20 but has since indicated she would oppose a vote to rescind, will be the pivotal vote when and if the Board considers action to approve the new plan.

The Board’s action came on the same day that state Election Coordinator Mark Goins confirmed that a citywide referendum must be held within 45 to 60 days of Chancellor Evans’ ruling on Wednesday. The Shelby County Election Commission, which is a party to the consent decree, has a scheduled meeting next week on which it could set the date.

It is worth noting however, that SCEC chairman Bill Giannini has been reluctant so far to set an election date, given a variety of what he considered legal uncertainties — some of them corroborated earlier by Goins. In the wake of Goins’ statement Thursday, some wonder if Giannini will find in the Board’s vote further reason, within the limits of the Evans order, for hesitation in setting an election date.

Among the lingering questions: If, as scheduled, Chancellor Evans’ order becomes final on Friday, would a subsequent vote by the MSC Board to rescind its December 20 vote affect the inevitability of a referendum? And, for that matter, would any action by the Board have a bearing on a ruling which was in response to a suit brought by a private group, the Citizens for Better Education?

Also on Thursday, state Senator Mark Norris, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, filed his bill to require a year-long stand-down in the MCS-SCS dispute, followed by a dual vote on surrendering the charter by city voters and county voters separately, with both votes required to be positive for consolidation to occur.

But in a statement released Thursday Norris agreed not to push his legislation further, nor to seek the fast-track treatment for it that House majority leader Beth Harwell has publicly promised him, if the county plan, which he supports and may have helped prepare, ends up being accepted by the MCS board.

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