Bombshell! 

Exercising its “nuclear option,” the MCS board votes 5-4 to liquidate itself and force consolidation with Shelby County Schools.

Shelby County School Board
president David Pickler answers
questions from the press.

Justin Fox Burks

Shelby County School Board president David Pickler answers questions from the press.

It took more than six hours and enough bloviating and redundancy and hair-splitting — mixed in with spurts of genuine eloquence — to put a toastmasters' convention to shame, not to mention Messrs. Jerry Springer and Glenn Beck.

But when it was all over and the climactic votes were at hand, the Memphis School Board took the most decisive act in its history (and conceivably one of its very last acts of any kind) — voting 5-4 to allow city voters the privilege of voting Memphis City Schools out of existence.

At the end, they were just sitting there, looking out over an auditorium rapidly emptying of what had been a studiously attentive, animated — and clearly divided — audience. Nine board members plus the superintendent and the board attorney. No handshakes, no high-fives, no walkouts.

It was half an hour before midnight, and they had been meeting for six hours, with one five-minute break. They looked a little spent but probably could have gone a few more rounds. Several of them looked like they wondered what they had just done.

The referendum they had just enabled — to be held within 45 to 60 days of Monday night's vote — was a response to the crisis that had been brewing since Shelby County School Board president David Pickler announced last month, in the wake of the November 2nd election, which produced large Republican majorities in the state legislature, that the time seemed ripe for another attempt in the General Assembly to create a special school district for the Shelby County school system.

Pickler's statement of intent galvanized MCS board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart, fearful that a special school district in the county would inevitably drain property tax revenue from the city schools, to float a defensive strategy — that of surrendering the MCS charter, an action which, if approved by city voters, would automatically consolidate city and county schools.

Those two diametrically opposed plans came to be known as "nuclear options," and they generated feverish attempts, sanctioned by Memphis mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, to find a third way, some compromise agreement between the two school systems that would forestall a showdown.

Efforts to do so began last week with a summit of city and county officials presided over by city council member Wanda Halbert, and they culminated with a meeting Sunday of the two mayors and other principal players representing the two school boards and city and county government. Such was the felt urgency of the moment that no one had a thought for possible violations of the state Sunshine Law.

Out of that meeting came a plan that would freeze both nuclear options for a period of three years, during which mutual consultations would take place and neither would carry out its Doomsday Plan.

Memphis School Board member Jeff Warren, who had made several attempts, both in public meetings and in an op-ed in The Commercial Appeal, to find common ground for the two warring sides to parley on, proposed a variant of the compromise Monday night — one, however, that foundered after a good deal of contentious wrangling.

The key moment was perhaps an admission by MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson that no agreement between the two boards would be legally binding on the Tennessee legislature, already under pressure from the Tennessee School Boards Association to end a prohibition against new school districts.

In the end, that root fact would override an earnest plea for compromise and moderation from Mayors Wharton and Luttrell, who, after some deceptively light-hearted early board business, including the bestowing of some end-of-year honorifics on students, administrators, and board members, got down to business. Wharton warned of "downstream consequences" and asked the board to be "a bit more deliberate." Luttrell noted that "many, many unanswered questions" remained if a merger of the two school boards should suddenly come into being, especially those of "financing, structure, and transition."

A string of other speakers followed the two mayors, beginning with Shelby County commissioners Mike Ritz, Sidney Chism, and Steve Mulroy, a Republican and two Democrats, making what amounted to common cause on behalf of the school board members favoring a charter surrender.

Ritz, who had been at the Sunday meeting, commented on the "questionable ability to enforce the agreement" proposed by Warren, given an inability to bind the state legislature to any compact. Chism invoked the spirit of Martin Luther King (a "troublemaker," he said, with heavy irony) and suggested broadly that those on the board and in the administration who resisted the charter surrender were defending their own "selfish interests."

Mulroy employed a metaphor for delay ("kicking the can down the road") that became something of a leitmotif for opponents of the Warren resolution.

There were speakers, too, like the Rev. LaSimba Gray and, notably, Memphis Education Association president Keith Williams, whose cadres could form the core of an opposition to the coming referendum, insisting that the school board keep MCS intact.

Intense and often repetitious discussion amongst the board members themselves followed. Ultimately, Warren's motion was brought to a vote and failed, with Jones, Hart, Sharon Webb, Stephanie Gatewood, and Patrice Robinson voting no and Kenneth Whalum Jr., Betty Mallott, Warren, and board president Freda Williams voting yes. The next vote was on the motion to call the referendum on surrendering the charter, and it succeeded 5-4 with the former naysayers now the yeasayers.            

The board's action could be a historic game-changer or it could be a fire drill. The Shelby County board could make a counter move, the state legislature could weigh in, there could be legal challenges, and Sara Lewis — who spoke against the charter surrender and will join the Memphis school board in January, replacing one of the charter surrender supporters — could introduce a motion to reconsider and undo the board's action. Indeed, as Lewis walked to her car shortly before midnight Monday, she told a supporter that she planned to do just that.

If there is a referendum in the next 60 days, it will be for city residents only, although that could prompt a challenge from county residents claiming their taxes support city schools. As the closely divided school board indicates, a referendum would be hotly contested. Board member Whalum, an opponent of charter surrender, said "a couple of bluffs are about to be called."

He was referring to the boycott threat by the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association and the likelihood of an MEA campaign to defeat the charter referendum.

"Now is the time we put up or shut up," Whalum said.

Unfazed were Jones, Hart, Gatewood, Webb (whose term ends this year and was one of the honorees early in the meeting), and Robinson. It was Robinson, a 10-year board member, who had as early as last Friday resolved to be the crucial fifth vote, a fact which she telegraphed early in the meeting when she voted against Warren's proposed three-year moratorium.

"It doesn't solve anything," Robinson said of the compromise hammered out by Warren and Republican state lawmakers. "It doesn't get anywhere. We would be right back here in three years."

This was a point made many times, too, by Hart, who leavened legal and procedural arguments with references to civil rights watershed moments and emotional appeals not to forsake "our babies" in the city schools in favor of a stopgap solution — one that she said would lead to de facto segregation of the sort that antedated the Supreme Court's desegregation decisions of the 1950s.

 

MCS superintendent Kriner Cash, who had pointedly not spoken at a well-attended "summit" meeting on the schools last week, apparently decided he had been silent long enough.

Late in Monday night's meeting, he was asked by Whalum (a Cash nemesis) to weigh in on the charter surrender debate. (More in the Strange Bedfellows Department: Whalum had congratulated Warren, another frequent adversary for his resolution. "I honor him," he said, adding later, "I still don't like him, and he doesn't like me.")

Seizing his moment, Cash delivered a passionate defense of the now crippled compromise agreement and unloosed a blast at certain board members, the media, and Shelby County schools leadership, making in the process a veiled threat to resign. (Should the referendum succeed and consolidation occur, his position would be eliminated anyway, of course.)

By pushing surrender, he said, board members were "leading to a street fight, and if you want to get it on, then you will get that."

His voice rising, Cash said, "I've been fighting since I got here" three years ago for incarcerated youth and against giving grades of "F" to black kids who had been getting slapped with failure all their lives.

"You were failing children, and you didn't have a problem with it," he said.

Then he turned his fire on board member Hart and others who invoked the civil rights struggle in their remarks.

"You should have done that a long time ago," he said. "You didn't need (Shelby County school board chairman) David Pickler to make you a civil libertarian."

Cash admonished the board. "I know about fighting," he said. "It's easy to fight. But it's smarter not to."

He said he didn't know much, however, about the Shelby County schools which MCS could conceivably become a part of, and he blamed the media for playing favorites and picking on MCS while giving Shelby County a pass. "And you want to go join them," he said, with obvious contempt. "Noise," he called it.

"We have to operationalize your decision," he told the board. "Not one of you has asked me what's going to happen to our work."

The voters of Memphis, he said, "are not ready to decide on this issue. ... This is not about children. This is just bad politics."

He closed with an appeal to board members to "back up and work together" because Shelby County school representatives would probably "get together by Christmas," if Memphis proceeds with charter surrender.

Had Whalum moved to call for a vote when Cash finished, some thought Cash's blunt eloquence and the emotions he aroused might have carried the day. Others would say later that the meeting had begun with five solid votes in favor of surrender and that nothing would have changed that fact.

In any case, Whalum went on with a longish speech of his own, recapitulating familiar arguments, and it was another 45 minutes before the vote came, first on the rejected compromise and then on the surrender motion.

Before the crucial vote took place, and after the effect of Cash's rhetoric had dissipated somewhat, Hart let it be known that she found his remarks "very disrespectful," saying, "I heard some personal insults."

After she and Jones conveyed what they said were reassurances that funds from the Gates Foundation and Race-to-the-Top federal program administered by the state would not be affected (a concern expressed by Betty Mallott, who acknowledged she had gone back and forth on the issue of charter-surrender), Hart then went on to deliver what amounted to the closing argument for surrender, noting in the process that she had been on the school board for three years before Cash came to Memphis and knew a few things he did not about dealing with Shelby County.

Time will soon enough reveal who knows what about an eyeball-to-eyeball showdown in which neither of the antagonists has yet blinked.

One of the mysteries of the run-up period to Monday night had been the attitude of Mark Norris, the Collierville resident who is the Republican majority leader in the state Senate and, some thought, might possess the ability to advance or retard special-school-district legislation.

Norris, a former co-sponsor of such legislation himself, had been courted by both sides during a longish period in which he had carefully avoided committing himself. A participant in the meeting Sunday that was organized to find a compromise, Norris composed a statement expressing a conciliatory attitude in generalized terms. This was read out loud Monday night by Warren but clearly was not strong enough or specific enough to convince those in favor of a charter surrender.

The outcome of Monday night's votes was such as to empower Norris to act as he sees fit. And it may have liberated Pickler, after a period in which, under pressure from the mayors and others, he had "taken things off the table" and presided over the county school board's public support of the proposed three-year delay.

Speaking last Friday on WKNO's Behind the Headlines show, Wharton had characterized the background of the schools crisis this way: "Here's the difficulty. City schools were minding their business. The consolidation vote had failed. Schools weren't even a part of that. Nobody on that board was talking about hooking up with anybody. All of a sudden, David Pickler says, I want to get as far away from them as I possibly can and then the Memphis City Schools uses perhaps the only effective weapon it has and says, Hey, naw, we're out of here.

"The one that did not start the fight ends up getting sent to the principal's office and gets the worst paddling, and that's what's happened to Memphis City Schools. They did not start this, though somehow, for them to be able to back up, they've got to walk away with something more than 'Back off. Leave David Pickler alone.' They weren't bothering David Pickler."

The question now is whether David Pickler chooses to bother MCS with a renewed push for special-school-district legislation. In brief remarks to reporters after Monday night's meeting, he declined to commit himself, blaming the MCS board for breaking what could have been a truce and promising only to meet with his board and with the SCS administration to consider options.

As it happens, the options — his, the voters', the legislature's — are many. One of them, in fact, presupposes "victory" for both contending parties — a situation in which the surrender referendum is approved by city voters while the General Assembly simultaneously enacts a special-school-district bill for Shelby County schools.

That could result in the erstwhile city schools becoming the county schools of record, while the former county schools could end up in a separate, walled-off district to themselves — everything right back where it all started, only more confused and uncertain.

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