Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MCS Board Rejects New Compromise

Posted By on Tue, Jan 18, 2011 at 3:59 PM

Martavius Jones
  • Martavius Jones
The Memphis City Schools board on Tuesday rejected a compromise proposal from the Shelby County school board.

The vote was 7-2, following more than three hours of discussion. An amended version of the compromise which was supported by MCS board member Jeff Warren did not come to a vote.

The county proposal would have had MCS rescind its charter surrender vote in December in exchange for SCS agreeing not to pursue special district status. A team of citizens of Memphis and Shelby County would have worked with an expert on school mergers to craft a plan to be presented for a countywide vote rather than a Memphis-only vote. That was one of the fatal flaws in both proposed compromises.

"I'm still not sure how we keep calling this a compromise," said board member Tomeka Hart on the county proposal.

Board member Betty Mallott, who voted against charter surrender in December, said she was against rescinding the earlier vote but willing to work with SCS in the future.

Warren, a physician, said he tried to look at the schools crisis as a doctor would, with an eye toward making the community healthy and easing the fears of both sides.

"This is a mature plan," he said of his plan.

MCS board members Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Freda Williams were the lone votes to accept Shelby County's offer. Williams said the board holds would-be charter schools for 20 students to a higher planning standard than her colleagues are accepting for a huge merger.

Whalum said Tuesday was "the first day of the campaign to defeat the referendum."

Warren said his proposal "is not dead" but there appeared to be little enthusiasm for it. Warren said he was handicapped by the sunshine law that requires public business to be conducted in public meetings. He said that meant he could talk to county board members but not to his own colleagues, who were seeing his proposal for the first time Tuesday.

The upshot is that a Memphis-only referendum in March or sooner is now more likely, although saying anything is certain in this story is dangerous. The state legislature could yet weigh in with something that could stall or prevent a referendum. Tuesday's school board action came a few hours after the Memphis City Council voted 10-0 to support the school board's decision to surrender the charter. It takes effect March 21st and would dissolve MCS without a referendum. School board attorney Dorsey Hopson called that action questionable on Constitutional grounds, but the board had other business on this night.

The main provisions of Warren's plan include hiring a school district governance expert, appointing a joint committee by March 1st, and coming up with a new model for city and county schools based on a chancellor and five smaller districts than either of the current districts.

The Shelby County Election Commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday to set a date for a city-only referendum on shifting schools administration to Shelby County. The next scheduled city school board meeting is January 24th.

Tuesday's meeting took four hours even though the vote rejecting Shelby County school board's proposal took only a few minutes. Much of the other time was spent in a question-and-answer session with attorneys Mike Marshall and Ernest Kelly about employee benefits and pensions in the event of a merger. After that, there was a long discussion of semantics and the words "consolidation" and "merger," with Whalum insisting the board had already surrendered the charter and the media has inaccurately reported this. Hopson opined that some words have both a precise legal definition and a general meaning for the sake of conversation and communication.

Superintendent Kriner Cash sat through every minute of the meeting but said, literally, only a few words. Board member Sara Lewis tried to get him to agree to a point she was making, but Cash would only say, after a pause, "lot of complicated things, yes." Cash will present the new budget at the next meeting.

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