That statement, made by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton near the beginning of a Tuesday afternoon meeting of local officials at City Hall, underscored the heightened degree of difficulty now confronting Memphians committed to next month’s scheduled citywide referendum on the transfer of authority for Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools.
The meeting, to which members of the City Council, the County Commission, the two local school boards were invited, had been called on behalf of the Shelby County legislative delegation by state Senator Beverly Marrero, the Midtown Democrat who is this year’s delegation chair.
Scheduled earlier in contemplation of committee action on two anti-merger bills slated for Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the meeting would take place in the immediate wake of a morning press conference in Nashville by Governor Bill Haslam, who, along with the state’s acting Commissioner of Education, Patrick Smith, had unexpectedly and quite directly become participants in the ongoing drama.
Though Haslam acknowledged the validity of the March 8 referendum, Smith had dropped the other shoe, an implied threat to intervene if satisfactory transition plans -- one involving the status of teachers involved in the proposed merger, the other concerning a host of general details concerning the transfer of authority from MCS to SCS -- were not submitted to his office by deadlines of February 16 and March 1, respectively.
Wharton told the attendees at Tuesday’s meeting that retribution cold come in the form of withheld state BEP (Basic Education Program) funding, but he said he was “convinced that we can work out a plan that’s acceptable to the state of Tennessee.”
That was in answer to a question from state Senator Jim Kyle, the Memphian who heads up the Senate Democratic caucus. Kyle had asked if there were a need for any further legislation to shore up the referendum process.
That Kyle, Marrero, and various other Democratic members of the delegation were the only legislators in attendance was a statement in itself. As council chairman Myron Lowery said, “It’s extremely significant who is here today….We do not have a full complement of our delegation. We are missing important people who will be presenting legislation in Nashville tomorrow.” That, Lowery said, was “a signal to the public about what’s being planned and what’s not being shared.”
County Commission chairman Sidney Chism, another Democrat, seconded Lowery’s concerns that, as the Council chairman had put it, the legislature’s Republicans — notably the absent Mark Norris of Collierville, Senate majority leader and the author of one bill to thwart the March 8 referendum — meant to “change the rules in the middle of the game.”
Chism concurred, saying, “We can’t stop it….They can pass anything they want…They want to dictate to the people.”
At that point, County Commission member Mike Carpenter, who functioned as something of a token Republican at the City Hall meeting, rose to make the case that issues involving the March 8 referendum and the merger were not partisan ones, a position that was endorsed in short order by state Representatives Larry Miller and G.A. Hardaway and by Council member Janis Fulllilove.
State Representative Johnnie Turner would make the same point, but she returned to Chism’s fatalism in speaking of Norris’ bill, SB 25, which professes to supersede the results of the referendum, calling for an alternate, lengthy process that would culminate in a joint vote of city and county residents down the line.
“It’s going to pass. We know that it is, so what can we do as a group?” she asked.
Attention soon turned to a letter Smith had sent to MSC superintendent Kriner Cash and SCS superintendent John Aitken, in which the acting commissioner had spelled out his terms.
Several attendees expressed confusion as to their meaning, and state Representative Jeanne Richardson responded to a statement by Wharton, meant to be reassuring, in which the mayor had professed optimism about complying with Smith’s conditions and continuing with the referendum process, regardless of potential obstacles that could “mess it up.”
“Respectfully, I would suggest to you that the purpose of this letter was to ‘mess it up’” Richardson told the mayor. She said Smith’s deadlines were so abrupt as to make compliance “impossible.”
After some more back-and-forthing, state Representative Joe Towns announced that he had Smith on the line, and the Commissioner’s voice was patched through to the public audio system of City Hall.
As was the case with an early phone call from City Council member Shea Flinn, Smith’s voice on the call was virtually unintelligible in the cavernous chamber, and, though the commissioner acknowledged that the second of his two deadlines, the March 1 one involving general transition, was not supported by specific statutes, he stood by both it and, especially, the first one of February 15 regarding teachers.
If Smith’s explicit meaning remained unclear, his tone was conciliatory and seemed to imply flexibility — a fact which gave Senator Kyle the opportunity to say, toward the end of the meeting that not all of the legislature’s Republicans would be of one mind regarding the Memphis situation and that the city’s point of view and that of MCS would be given a fair shake.
Briefly reviewed the fast-track status extended to Norris’ bill by the Republican leadership, Kyle said the bill, likely to get floor votes in both Senate and House on Monday, “may be amended, may be changed.”
He concluded, “By Friday, we’re going to know what we’re going to voting on Monday in the legislature at 5 o’clock. We need to know whether you’re for that bill or not.” Though isolated responses of “no” were heard in the chamber, Kyle said, “There may be a bill we can support.”
And, after Kyle’s reiteration that representatives of the city and county and the two school boards shold make their wishes known, the meeting shortly came to an end.
What Haslam had to say might possibly give aid and comfort to both sides in the controversy. Essentially the governor acknowledged that the issue was a local one for Memphis and Shelby County and specifically said the forthcoming March 8 citywide referendum on the transfer of authority for Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools would go on as scheduled. “Nothing we are doing here will impact that vote.”
But he declared that the state had a “legal responsibility and a moral responsibility,” as well as a “common-sense responsibility” to see that any transition preserved the rights of both teachers and the 150,000 students currently enrolled in the two systems.
Haslam said the state Education Commissioner, Patrick Smith, “has to approve any plan as it relates to teachers” and noted that Smith had dispatched a detailed letter on the subject to both MCS superintendent Kriner Cash and SCS superintendent John Aitken.
In the letter, Smith cites”a legal requirement placed upon the Commissioner of Education by Tenn. Code Ann. §49-5-203(d) in the context of a change in any governmental structure or organization.” The statute, says Smith, provides that “[t]he Commissioner must make a determination that the rights and privileges afforded to teachers by Section 49-5-203 are not impaired, interrupted, or diminished by organizational changes like the one proposed by the referendum. “
Smith says elsewhere in the letter,” In order to make a favorable determination that no impairment, interruption or diminution has occurred, the Department must review a comprehensive plan addressing in detail all of the pertinent aspects related to the transition of teachers.” And the letter sets forth a deadline of February 15 for receipt of “a personnel plan for teachers” and a second deadline of March 1 for receipt of “a comprehensive transition plan developed by both school districts…”
An appendage to the letter lists a lengthy variety of subjects to be addressed in the comprehensive transition plan — including student services, facilities and equipment, charter schools, and debt.
Smith also took part in Wednesday’s press conference and pointedly said the Commissioner’s office had “moral authority… to withhold funds in any district anytime there’s non-compliance with a rule or a state stature.”
Haslam said he had been in touch with various parties to the issues involved, including Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, state House speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, and “some members of the Shelby County [legislative] delegation. He said he had talked as recently as Monday night to Wharton and Luttrell and declared he had “great faith and confidence in their leadership.”
In answer to a follow-up question on the March 8 referendum, Haslam repeated his assurances that the vote should go on as scheduled: “I don’t think it’s our place to decide who votes or when the vote happens.” But, in answer to another question about several bills pending in the General Assembly, he said the legislature “has a role,” which it would likely define for itself.