Thursday, December 16, 2010

Interview with Martavius Jones

Posted By on Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 12:26 PM

Memphis school board member Martavius Jones, along with colleague Tomeka Hart, has been the main proponent of surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter to force a merger with the Shelby County school system.

Jones, a financial adviser, evaluates risk and reward on a daily basis. In an interview Thursday at his office next to FedEx Forum — four days before the scheduled December 20th vote on charter surrender — he talked about his reasons.

Why are you doing this?

A lot of people think this is a back-door route to consolidation. It absolutely is not. I am on record as supporting consolidation. But this measure was a defensive tactic to prevent Shelby County from having a special school district and the possibility of all of the property values outside of the city of Memphis would be off limits.

So the big trend you see is fewer dollars to support city services?

Right. I am not an attorney, but the Tennessee Code says something about special school district taxes, and it talks about obligations of property owners who live in special school districts. It says they are responsible for funding their schools but it doesn’t require them to continue to fund any other system. The threat of that is too much for us to continue down the road we are on.

Did you hear anything this week that has made you change your view?

No. This thing has gone beyond Memphis and Shelby County now. Mr. (David) Pickler cannot obligate the Tennessee School Boards Association from pushing this to the top of the legislative agenda.

How sure are you today that this will come to a vote at the board on Monday?

There is a slim possibility it won’t. I have heard that Shelby County schools is going to have a special called meeting. But I believe that this is a difficult conversation that we just have to have as a community.

What's the matter with special school district status?

I don’t necessarily have a problem with Shelby County schools obtaining special school district status. What I have a problem with is the investment that Memphians have made in Shelby County schools as well as Memphis City Schools but not being a part of that discussion. We had to have separate referendums in the city and county to pass consolidation. This is just as major an issue. If anything, we need to have a referendum in the city and the county to say whether Shelby County schools should be a special district. Memphians financed the expansion of the county. In my estimation, that money has not been repaid.

If Mayor Wharton and Mayor Luttrell came to you this weekend and said back off, would you do it?

They have asked that before, but it’s beyond individual board members and the mayors, and that is why I say, let the people decide.

How do you see the vote breaking now?

I still see four in favor, three no’s, and two undecided.

Can it win with four votes if there are some abstentions?

No. We have to have five.

If it passes would you then work for it for the next 80 days or whatever until the referendum?

I would.

What do you think the chances are of it passing in a referendum?

Based on the minute segment of the population that has said something to me, I have not received one opposed to surrender.

How do you look at this from a risk-reward perspective?

This is to assure the long-term funding stability of Memphis City Schools. That is the primary concern that I have. As someone said to me back in November, how can anyone maintain the same standard of living with a 50-percent cut in pay? The risk is that there is a lot of uncertainty. The Gates funding is a grant that essentially pays us $7.5 million twice a year for six years. Do we look at the threat of losing that as the same as the threat of losing half of our funding base? Race to the Top is a grant that lasts four years. It is big money. But the core funding is more important than the supplementary funds. Yes, there will be a huge transition that would have to take place. People will say that we are for all children in Memphis, but in truth there is an us-versus-them mentality with Memphis and Shelby County. Why not have everyone in the same boat pushing for education for all children?

What about issues like merging academic programs, pay scales, bus systems, facility standards and that kind of thing?

Corporate mergers take place all the time with much larger organizations. There is never an expectation that the transition is going to work out in three or six or nine months. There would have to be a huge transition plan, including that the Memphis City School board goes away. What exactly happens in the interim? I’m not sure.

But if corporations can merge, then school systems can merge?

I think so.

Who’s got your back?

I’m carrying water for the residents of Memphis, Tennessee, that’s all.

What pushed you to this point?

The change in the state legislature November 2nd. When we had 50-48-1 Republican to Democrat to Independent House last year, and it (special school districts) went to subcommittee and lost by one vote. Now we have a 64-34-1 makeup.

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