NASHVILLE — Those who follow Tennessee politics are well aware that conservative Republicans have established control over the Tennessee General Assembly — the GOP having won 64 seats in the state House last fall (to the once dominant Democrats’ 34) and holding a 20-13 edge in the state Senate.
Legislation approved by the Republican leadership in the two chambers has so far been passed with unprecedented speed — whether it be the Norris-Todd bill regulating how school-system merger can be carried out in Memphis or a bill to exempt Tennessee from the mandates of last year’s federal health-care bill or several current measures to restrict or revoke the traditional prerogatives of public school teachers.
But one sea change had gone largely unnoticed until Thursday when, at the conclusion of the current week’s session (which saw Governor Haslam’s modifications to teacher tenure sped on their way to full passage), two Democratic legislators from Memphis made a discovery in the halls of Legislative Plaza, the General Assembly’s office complex.
Watching one of the several high-definition TV monitors that now hang from the walls of Legislative Plaza, state Rep. Lois DeBerry and state Senator Reginald Tate noticed that, after both Senate and House had finished their business for the week, the monitors had switched from closed-circuit screenings of the two chambers to news transmissions from the Fox News cable network.
When they asked the uniformed guard who controls the settings if the channel could be changed — to CNN, say — he informed them, “We were told to keep the sets on Fox News.” Why? He shrugged. “Because it’s a conservative network.” When the legislators looked at him open-mouthed, he shrugged again. “That’s what we were told,” he said apologetically.
It was not immediately possible to establish who gave the say-so, but a longtime denizen of Legislative Plaza said that at one time such housekeeping matters had been determined by an informal committee appointed by the Speakers of the House and Senate. “More likely now, it’s just what the two Speakers want to see up there,” he said.
That would be Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville in the Senate and Rep. Beth Harwell of Nashville in the House. Asked about the channel choice, Ramsey took full credit. "It's my doing," he said. "I just thought we should be fair and balanced."
Rep. DeBerry and Sen. Tate served notice that they would try to get the channel changed, at least from time to time, and state Rep. Tommie Brown of Chattanooga said she, too, would join in such an effort.
The vote was 47,912 for to 23,612 against — a margin of better than 2 to 1.The result led some to wonder what might have happened if the spokespersons for suburban interests had gotten their way and the entire county voted. Even pollster Berje Yacoubian, who sees the referendum failing in that context, thinks it would have been razor-thin close.
The outcome provoked Churchillian echoes from observers — MCS Board member Jeff Warren, a foe of the referendum, doing a variation on the theme of never-have-so-many-been-so-wrong-about-so-much, and Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn, a supporter of the referendum, terming the result, a la Churchill as the tide of World War II changed, as not yet the Beginning of the End, but “The End of the Beginning.”
Flinn’s borrowed trope is accurate. The unexpectedly large margin of victory for charter transfer (a.k.a., consolidation of MCS with SCS) ushers in the next phase of the contest — which will occur in the courts.
Everybody will be suing everybody, and, most importantly, the Norris-Todd bill, passed by the Republican-dominated legislature last month, will almost certainly be targeted by somebody reasonably soon on grounds that its co-optation of the merger results amounts to an ex post facto action and that its 21-member planning commission is slanted toward suburban interests to the point that it violates the one man/one vote precepts of Baker v. Carr.
Whether Norris-Todd withstands challenge or not, its mandated 2 1/2 —year planning period would seem to negate any prospect that the legislature will move sooner to strike down prohibitions against new special or municipal school Districts. The bill allows for such districts to be considered for Shelby County, but no sooner than August 2013, when the bill ordains that the MCS-SCS merger be completed.
For its part, SCS has filed suit in federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment against MCS; the City Council, which has voted to accept charter surrender; and the Shelby County Commission, which is proceeding to create a package of all-county school districts and will shortly be interviewing candidates for positions.
However complex things become, there is the root fact that, unless the election is found to have been unconstitutional, MCS will soon become a thing of the past. A de facto consolidation of city and county schools will occur — whether on the August 2012 timetable of the county commission or on that of Norris-Todd, scheduled to accomplish the deed a year later.
Almost certainly, the “chancery” method of consolidation, which envisions five or six separate and somewhat autonomous sub-districts in a consolidated county system, will form the basis for discussion among those who have favored a merger or who now see it as inevitable.
Some weeks ago, after a mammothly attended meeting in Germantown at which sentiment for a municipal school system in that elite eastern suburb ran high, Bartlett, the more modest township that borders Memphis on its northeast edge, was due to have a similar public meeting.
Bad weather intervened, however, and that meeting wasn’t held until Thursday night, at the Bartlett Municipal Center on Stage Road. The city’s mayor, Keith McDonald, would opine several times that, given the need to preserve property values, “maybe we can’t afford not to” pay for a city-operated school system, but local sentiment for such a solution may have cooled off a bit — due to cost factors mentioned by the mayor and other speakers.
Also appearing were Shelby County Schools Board members Mike Wissman and David Reeves; Shelby County Commissioners Wyatt Bunker, Terry Roland, and Chris Thomas; and state Representatives Jim Coley and Ron Lollar. Pete Martin, Head of the Bartlett Neighborhood Association, moderated.
As McDonald noted to the audience of some 300 (compared to a turnout for the earlier meeting at Germantown Performing Arts Center of 800 or so), the costs of operating a municipal school system in the future would probably equate to the costs of doing everything else the city does just now — effectively causing a raise of 75 cents to $1 dollar on Bartlett’s current property tax rate of $1.49. “Economically speaking, the best solution would be for all or most of what is now Shelby County Schools to be a special school district,” the mayor said.
Even so, McDonald reviewed some of the particulars involved in creating a municipal district. There were some 10,703 school-age children in the greater Bartlett area (the city plus its annexation reserve), of whom 8,084 currently attended public schools, 6,271 of those within the city limits. A city school system could expect its “fair share” of state Basic Education Program (BEP) funds. One sticking point might be the cost — estimated as some $65 million — of acquiring the 11 school buildings in Bartlett.
There was considerable discussion of how a Bartlett municipal school system might acquire such infrastructure — whether from the county or the state and whether a discounted price might be available. McDonald threw cold water on the hopeful theory that the city might acquire the properties free of charge.
The uncertainties accruing to a municipal school system were such that most of the conversation at the forum, both on stage and emanating from the audience, concerned long-familiar and more general issues pertaining to the showdown between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools and to next week’s citywide referendum in Memphis on the transfer of authority for MCS to SCS.
“The best case scenario is, we could still defeat this referendum,” Wissman said. His optimism on that score was apparently not shared by many, either on or off stage, however. Much of what was said at the meeting amounted to vituperations against those — whether on the MCS Board, the City Council, or the Shelby County Commission — who were perceived to have fostered the merger movement.
Lollar talked about “loose cannons” that “don’t care about the kids” and “sue us and use our money to sue us with.” Roland fulminated about a merger-minded cabal of 10 Memphis members of the county commission (amended later to 9, in deference to Heidi Shafer, a Memphis member who normally votes with himself, Bunker, and Thomas on school-system issues.) Not only had these members presumptuously arranged to interview and appoint interim members to an all-county school board, but they had been profligate enough to engage attorney Leo Bearman and a Bearman assistant at a combined hourly rate of nearly $900.
They had even tried to pass a resolution making the commission responsible for upholding teachers’ unions, Roland said. “Even some of the crazy ones voted against that.”
Thomas reminded the crowd of the “$80 million” annually owed by Memphis city government to MCS, imputing to the Memphis City Council, which has voted to accept an MCS charter surrender, a motive of getting out from under that obligation. He expressed a hope for an injunction on March 9 against proceeding with the merger if next week’s referendum should pass.
As Roland had done, Coley spoke of the likelihood of a potential exodus from the county, similar to what busing had caused for Memphis proper. He said it would be “contemptible and shameful” if the Memphis City Council did not reverse its pro-merger vote in the event that the March 8 referendum failed.
The kindest thing said all night about any of the forces identified with the move to merge MCS with SCS came from Mayor McDonald, who acknowledged, regarding the December 20 vote by a majority on the MCS Board to surrender the system’s charter, “Quite frankly, they have the right to do that.”
The most hopeful — and novel — thing said all night, from the anti-merger point of view, came from Rep. Lollar, during a discussion of the Norris-Todd bill, passed last month in the General Assembly. The bill presumes a “yes” vote in next week’s merger referendum and mandates, among other things, a 2 ½-year waiting period, during which a 21-member “planning commission,” largely reflecting suburban interests, would be operating. At the end of the prescribed period, a merger could take place, but simultaneously prohibitions against the creations of new special or municipal districts in Shelby County would be lifted.
Lollar saw a silver lining within the silver lining. Instead of having to go about the business of passing a new private act so as to create municipal or special districts in Shelby County, the planning commission itself might be empowered to mandate one or more in fulfillment of its duties. “That may be the plan,” he said.
Commissioner Bill Gibbons, the former District Attorney General for Shelby County, made the announcement, along with Godwin, at a Wednesday afternoon press conference at the Criminal Justice Center.
A simultaneously issued press release from the Department of Safety and Homeland Security included this statement from Governor Bill Haslam: “Director Godwin brings a high level of law enforcement and leadership experience to the Department of Safety and Homeland Security. His focus on data-driven policing has received international acclaim and under his leadership, Memphis has made great strides in crime reduction. I’m excited he’s joining the already high quality team in place at the department.”
Godwin was appointed police director in 2004 by former Mayor Willie Herenton and is best known for his development of the Blue C.R.U.S.H. program (for Crime Reduction Using Statistical Hiustory). Significant decreases in the crime rate were registered under Godwin’s tenure.
Most recently, Godwin was the center of a prolonged controversy over whether his enrollment in the city’s Deferred Retirement Optional Plan (DROP) three years ago precluded his rehiring when his commitment to retire became official in April. Both Godwin and Mayor A C Wharton wished the relationship to continue, but the director ultimately opted to let his retirement become official and final on April 15. He will assume his duties with the Department of Safety and Homeland Security on April 18.
Remember the Tilt-A-Whirl—that carnival ride with the big red cars that would spin you around so fast, there was almost a guarantee that you would end up throwing up? Mad As Hell is introducing a segment called “Rightwing Tilt-A-Whirl” featuring some essential news stories you may have missed—those stories the “ fair and balanced” found important to ignore. These are news items everyone should know. But be warned—if you are that rare right winger who considers logic and reason an essential part of formulating an opinion then be prepared to take some deep cleansing breaths in the cool outdoors to expand your mind. Or, perhaps reach for the old reliable bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
State senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) has introduced Senate Bill 1028 that claims that Shariah law “continues to plague the United States generally and Tennessee in particular” by requiring Muslims to “actively and passively support the replacement of America’s constitutional republic” with an Islamic state. Thus, adherence to the “legal-political-military doctrine” of Shariah law “is treasonous and a felony punishable by 15 years in jail.” The bill further states that any adherence to Shariah law—including religious practices like feet washing and daily prayer is treasonous.
Reproductive Rights? - Wrong! Republican dominated states throughout the country have declared war on women’s reproductive rights in America. Over the last month, several states have proposed plans to deny women not only the right to abortion, but to restrict their availability to contraception. In Nebraska, legislation has been introduced that would authorize the use of “justifiable homicides” in defense of killings to prevent harm to a fetus.
The U.S. House of Representatives have three pending bills which would strip all funding for the 800 Planned Parenthood clinics around the country. Also, all Title X funding, which provides family planning for low-income Americans would be totally cut. Let’s hope these Republicans have the same success as their Republican predecessors have had in their wars on Iraq, Afghanistan, drugs, crime, education and poverty.
Government Service! As the War on Government Workers and the Middle Class continues in Wisconsin, there are some lesser known proposals in the 144-page bill that the governor, Scott Walker, wants enacted. One is the repeal of the rule requiring municipal governments to disinfect their water. Mr. Walker thinks treating drinking water is too expensive for his state. In 1993, 104 people in Wisconsin died and 400,000 got sick when the Milwaukee water supply became infected. Although municipalities in that state can keep their water clean for as little as $10,000 per well, the governor thinks that is too high a price to pay to keep citizens safe from deadly microorganisms and illnesses.
Birther Announcement! Yesterday, while hawking his new book, A Simple Government on right wing radio’s Steve Malzberg’s show, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee claimed President Obama had grown up in Kenya. “One thing that I do know is having grown up in Kenya his view of the Brits, for example, is very different that of the average American,” said Huckabee, a Fox News host and possible Republican candidate for President in 2012. Afterwards a Huckabee spokesperson said the former governor of Arkansas had “misspoke” when twice claiming on two different networks that the President grew up in Kenya.
Sharing the Pain! In New Jersey the Republican governor has proposed that middle class workers earning less than $50,000 should share the pain by taking a 25% reduction in pay and benefits. In the sharing however, he does not agree that over 225,000 millionaires in New Jersey should participate by increasing their taxes a mere 3% ($30,000) per annum. Repeat, the $50,000 per year worker can afford a $12,500 per year pay cut along with a reduction in their retirement and medical benefits but the folks earning $1,000,000 per year cannot afford an additional tax of $30,000 per year.
Tilt to the Right. Whirl. Nauseated yet?