Alternate Realities 

All is not what it seems as state and local authorities compete to shape the schools’ future.

click to enlarge Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, right, speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., while acting Education Commissioner Patrick Smith looks on - AP PHOTO/ERIK SCHELZIG
  • AP Photo/Erik Schelzig
  • Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, right, speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., while acting Education Commissioner Patrick Smith looks on

Last week saw the initiative on the ongoing school controversy passed to Nashville — a fact that did not augur well for proponents of a truly unitary public-school system in Shelby County.

Early in the week Governor Bill Haslam and acting state education commissioner Patrick Smith got in the act, calling a press conference to announce that any prospective merger between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools would require specific — and immediate — transition plans, to be cleared by the state. The implied "or else" was that state funding for local schools could be at risk.

Hardly had that shock been absorbed by proponents of an MCS charter surrender when legislative committees in both the state Senate and state House, meeting in the state capitol on successive days, cleared a bill by Senate majority leader Mark Norris of Collierville for floor action this week — one that set forth a suburban-oriented resolution of the currently raging controversy,  

In essence, Norris' bill attaches a number of subsequent stages to the court-ordered city referendum he and other merger opponents had earlier been unable to impede. Charged with following up on a "yes" vote and implementing a merger plan over a two-and-a-half year period would be a 21-member "planning commission," with members appointed by the Shelby County mayor, the governor, the speakers of the Senate and House, and the MCS and SCS board chairs — but no appointees by anyone in city government, including Mayor A C Wharton.

At the end of the process (which would be vetted by the state education department), comes the piece de resistance: The bill strikes down  — in practical terms, for Shelby County only — the existing state prohibition against the creation of new special or municipal school districts, thereby legitimizing the very outcome which merger proponents and supporters of a scheduled March 8 citywide referendum to that end had sought to prevent!

The city-side reaction to this sequence of events seemed — superficially at least — to be halting and uncertain. The Haslam-Smith announcement was followed by a hastily called meeting at City Hall at which legislative Democrats and other local supporters of the forthcoming referendum mulled over a possible response. Ultimately, no action was taken, though Wharton professed confidence that a little talking between himself and state officials might accomplish something.

click to enlarge Mark Norris - JB
  • JB
  • Mark Norris

Response to the Norris bill was equally tentative. City council chairman Myron Lowery called an ad hoc council meeting for Thursday, which deadlocked on the issue of immediately dropping the other foot on a conditionally worded resolution of last month that would, when completed, put the council on record as formally accepting the surrender of the MCS charter.

Ultimately, the council voted to delay any final action on formal acceptance of the charter surrender, apparently in compliance with a suggestion by Wharton that Haslam had pledged not to sign the Norris bill until further conversations could be held on revisions desired by the mayor and others. (That the bill would become law within 10 days of its passage, even without the governor's signature, was a fact not addressed.)

The result of all these circumstances was that the bill, unchanged, came up for action by the full Senate on Monday night and passed, 20-10, on the same kind of pure party-line vote that had characterized prior votes on it in House and Senate committees. More of the same was expected on Thursday, when a House floor vote was scheduled.

In both chambers, rhetorical opposition from Democrats has so far been met with perfunctory courtesy and complete disregard by the Republicans, whose majority in both bodies is such as to admit no real need for negotiation. This is the exact opposite of how it used to be when Democrats ruled the legislature and Republicans were a minority too modestly sized to disrupt the plans of the majority.

This is not to say that Democrats did not put up a fight. When Norris presented his bill, SB25, to the Senate education committee last week, vice chair Reginald Tate, a Memphis Democrat, mustered at least a pro forma objection, though the real challenge came from a Chattanooga Democrat, state senator Andy Berke, who pointed out, "People are always complaining about Washington trying to control us, and here we are in Nashville trying to control Memphis."

After the committee had passed the bill on its way, Berke characterized the purpose of the Norris bill as "to try to delay this thing for three years, then have the potential for separating out the county's [district] at the end of it anyway."

In the House committee sessions (education and finance), with Todd presenting the bill (as HB51), vigorous rhetorical opposition was mounted by the Democratic triumvirate of state representative Lois DeBerry of Memphis, former House speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, and state representative Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, the current Democratic House leader. Several amendments emanating from the trio, including efforts to expand the proposed planning commission to include more Memphis appointees and to strike the final provision enabling a special school district, were summarily rejected.

So was a motion by state representative Larry Miller of Memphis asking for language on behalf of gender and racial diversity in appointments to the planning commission. "Unnecessary," said Todd, and the single adjective "competent" was retained as the bill's only qualifying term regarding appointees. Naifeh was prompted to say, regarding what he saw as the scarce representation in the process of inner-city Memphians, "This is a Civil Rights issue as much as anything else, and I'm going to be on the right side of it."

Commenting on the "unprecedented" speed with which the bill was being fast-tracked, Fitzhugh said, "This whole thing came to us while this body was in recess. ... It will ... be the first bill that our new speaker will hear and the first bill signed by the governor. We've never done it this way before."

During formal debate in the full Senate on Monday night, Jim Kyle of Memphis, the Senate Democratic leader, and another Memphis Democrat, Beverly Marrero, protested the bill as threatening the long-term prospects of the Memphis City schools.

What few observers watching the debate on WKNO-TV or online realized was that Kyle nor Marrero were essentially acting on their own tack. Neither they nor any other Shelby County senator had been urged to take any particular course of action or to sponsor amendments by representatives of the Memphis city government. Indeed, they had had no real consultation at all, despite the widespread impression that behind-the-scenes negotiations were being carried on.           

• What is actually taking place behind the scenes is something else entirely. All is not what it seems to be.

Though proponents of school-system merger, on the city council and elsewhere, are still wrangling privately over whether to jump-start a formal resolution accepting the MCS board's December 20th vote to surrender its charter, one important rock-bottom fact has been virtually overlooked in the media and in public discussion. That fact is that such an acceptance is already built into the council resolution passed last month and will, in the absence of any further action, take place automatically on March 17th.

On that date, by which time the Norris bill will likely have become law and the March 8th referendum will probably also have passed, an alternative course will be legally sanctioned.

Under the terms of the Norris bill, the MCS board would continue to exist until August 2013. The council's acceptance of charter surrender, however, would assume the immediate dissolution of the board, at which point the Shelby County Commission, which has already laid the basis for appointing interim members of an all-county school board, would presumably attempt to take over the process of completing a transition.  

Further complicating the picture is the fact that Wharton himself could make a bid to become the arbiter of a transition (that very proposal is built into the council resolution that was deferred last week) and that the Shelby County Schools board would almost surely attempt to assert its own authority over the terms of a sudden de facto merger.

So it is that, a month or so from now, at least four potential legal solutions to the merger dilemma, wholly different from each other, could well be competing — and only a court or a sequence of courts will finally determine which one of these will in the end become reality.

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