Pathways to Crisis 

Numerous twists and turns have led to the current city of Memphis-MCS showdown. It was about money then, and it’s about money now.

One of the subtexts of the 2008 decision by the Memphis City Council to cut back on its annual financial commitment to Memphis City Schools was what was generally perceived as a lack of accountability in MCS' expenditures. That was spoken to by several council members in the debate over whether or not to fund the schools.

Another subtext of that decision was the simple desire to get the city — and its taxpayers — out from under the burden of dual taxation. Talks between representatives of city and county government and the two school systems toward the goal of what was hopefully called "single-source funding" had been ongoing for some time and would continue, finally breaking down for good in 2009 when Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler said a final nix to a variety of plans then being proposed by a special task force on single-source funding.

At the time, Pickler averred frankly on behalf of SCS: "Our number-one goal for 10 years has been special districts. We know it is a legislative long shot at best, perhaps."

After the Republican Party's sweep of the 2010 legislative races, the suburban-friendly GOP controlled both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly and, with the election of Bill Haslam, the governor's office as well. No longer did the prospect of enabling a special school district for Shelby County Schools appear a "legislative long shot," and Pickler, in the wake of that election, was frank to admit as much.

The immediate impact of that was to temporarily allay the mutual suspicions existing between the Memphis City Schools board and the Memphis City Council. MCS had misgivings that a suburban special school district would ultimately seal off property-tax resources, and, once the board resolved to defend itself by dissolving and forcing a merger of MCS with SCS, the council saw a pathway toward its elusive goal of single-source funding.

As a race developed between proponents of a merger and those who resisted it, including forces in state government that seemed determined to back up Shelby County Schools, the MCS and the city council temporarily forgot their differences and drew closer together. And when the legislature in February passed the Norris-Todd bill, which proposed an elongated time frame for merger, allowed for a suburban special school district at the end of it, and excluded city officials from any part of a "planning commission" established by the bill, the commonality of interests between board and council, which unanimously voted to support the MCS board's charter surrender, seemed complete.

Some unraveling began to occur during the course of the current litigation now being presided over by U.S. district judge Hardy Mays, who will rule on several aspects of the merger issue — including that of when (and perhaps whether) MCS will pass out of existence and whether the Norris-Todd merger plan or a sped-up version proposed by the Shelby County Commission has precedence.

In the ongoing litigation, MCS is represented by a legal team chosen by schools superintendent Kriner Cash, who is vehemently opposed to the merger process, and not one representing the interests of the once merger-minded MCS board. The result, said one participant in the litigation, is that MCS is "coasting along with the state and with Shelby County Schools, hoping that Norris-Todd prevails."

Then came the just-concluded budget season, and, with school opening close behind it, the matter of the city's debt to MCS, which had never been quite shelved but had diminished in importance, suddenly resurfaced. Even the somewhat arbitrary figure of $55 million demanded of the city by the MCS board as a precondition for starting the school semester was an uncanny echo of the $57 million which the city deigned not to include in its 2008 maintenance-of-effort payment to MCS and which the courts have since ordered it to pay. The city has agreed in principle to pay the latter sum but has not yet fixed on a schedule for doing so.


• Another aspect of the current controversy, largely overlooked to this point, is the fact that the council, though its 2008 action is in some ways the starting point of the current impasse, has for the last three years appropriated the entirety of the established $78.5 million maintenance-of-effort sum and earmarked it for Memphis City Schools.

And though the council has borne the brunt of media attention and public criticism as the foil for MCS in the funding matter, it is in fact the mayor's office which is responsible for making the payments, and, if the MCS board's calculations of monies still owed it are correct, it is the mayor's office which, for reasons of insufficient property-tax receipts or whatever, withheld nearly $13 million for the fiscal/academic years 2009-10 and 2010-11. Shortfalls for those years were included in the figure of $151 million which the board last week insisted it was owed.

Privately, some council members are increasingly displeased that they are being blamed for financial decisions that they say were in fact made by the city administration — that of A C Wharton as well, perhaps, as that of former Mayor Willie Herenton.

Has Wharton played his cards too close to the vest? "Indisputably," says one council member, who was astonished to learn of the alleged shortages. "We voted the money. It was up to the administration to pay it."


• Whether Wharton would see justice in such recriminations or not, he was well aware, in the same week that he exuberantly filed for reelection, that his catbird seat has suddenly become a hot seat.

Speaking to reporters after his formal campaign opening on Saturday, the mayor commented thusly about the school board's financial demands on the city: "The bottom line is this, and it might seem hokey: Every elected official in town came to me and said, if you give in to them now, you'll look like a coward, they're bullying you. But that never did resonate with me, because it's all about getting the kids in school."

He insisted, "If they don't get in school now, I don't want anybody to say it's because the city didn't send the money over there. We can do this political recrimination thing down the road somewhere. We're going to get those kids in school."

Almost wistfully, Wharton looked back to the status quo preceding the pyrotechnics of last week: "I think we have been able to show that you can take a big old raucous city and govern it with civility. If you remember, we haven't had any explosions on the council, in the administration. Now there's supposed to be tension between the executive and the legislative, but [for] even the most begrudging, critical person in city government, things have been rolling along, compared to other cities. We've had no gridlock between one branch of government and the other. ... This city can be progressive and civil at the same time. ... We have a chip on our shoulder. People want to view us as that backwater town down there, and I want to live that down."


• Meanwhile, Memphis got a new interim city council member, as the council, meeting in special session on Friday, selected local businessman Berlin Boyd from among 12 applicants to succeed retired District 7 council member Barbara Swearengen Ware.

Although no formal policy had been established barring candidates for the District 7 seat on the October ballot from the interim appointment, it was clear that a majority of the council preferred to appoint someone, like Boyd, who was not seeking election to the post.

There remain 14 candidates who qualified for the October ballot and hope to succeed Boyd. The District 7 race, in all probability, will be one of the few that will be fully competitive, in that council incumbents, all of whom filed for reelection, will be heavily favored in the other 12 districts.

Four incumbents — Harold Collins in District 3, Jim Strickland in District 5, Myron Lowery in Super District 8, Position 3, and Reid Hedgepeth Super District 9, Position 3 — are unopposed.

Wharton drew 9 opponents, of whom three — Shelby County commissioner James Harvey, former city council member Edmund Ford Sr., and former Shelby County commissioner John Willingham — have previous political and governmental experience.

The October ballot will be completed after this Thursday's withdrawal deadline has passed.


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