Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Council, School Board Agree: Memphis' Will is Paramount

Two Tuesday night votes clear the way for a dissolution of MCS, but Norris bill and five-district solution loom as alternatives.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 19, 2011 at 8:00 AM

Board members Jeff Warren, Sara Lewis, and Tomeka Hart follow Tuesday nights action. (Martavius Jones is visible at left.)
  • JB
  • Board members Jeff Warren, Sara Lewis, and Tomeka Hart follow Tuesday night's action. (Martavius Jones is visible at left.)

As of 9:45 Tuesday night, Memphis sovereignty over its own affairs was doubly underscored:

Rejecting a “compromise” school plan received from Shelby County Schools by a convincing vote of 7-2, the Memphis City Schools board completed a statement begun several hours earlier when the Memphis City Council voted unanimously for a resolution “accepting and approving the dissolution and surrender of the Memphis City Schools Charter.”

Both outcomes moved the looming and perhaps inevitable consolidation of the MCS and SCS systems further down the road. But that almost seemed a secondary consequence. What the two votes established first and foremost was the right of Memphis citizens to chart their own course and resolve their own destiny.

As Councilman Bill Boyd said in joining his colleagues in voting for a resolution prepared by Councilman Shea Flinn, “We are all Memphians, and we’re all representatives of the citizens of Memphis,”, and that meant, Boyd said, that “we don’t have any other choice” other than to defend the city’s right to decide by itself the fate of its own public school system.

And School Board member Martavius Jones responded similarly when asked to account for his board’s one-sided rejection of a convoluted SCS plan. The county board's profferred plan would have forced the MCS board to rescind its dramatic December 20 vote to surrender its charter and authorize a citywide referendum on the transfer of MCS'authority to the Shelby County Schools board. Under the SCS counter-offer rejected Tuesday night county voters would have been empowered to vote along with Memphis residents for a replacement plan.

“What needs to be emphasized most is that Memphis City Schools has abided by the law. The law says Memphians have the right to control their fate,” Jones said.

Just in case the MCS Board might get cold feet and come to a different conclusion, Flinn and Council co-sponsor Harold Collins had crafted their resolution as a sort of fallback to the planned referendum. It set an effective date of March 21 for the dissolution of MCS with “an option to reconsider if the voters disapprove the referendum.” Now that the possible impediments have been removed, the Shelby County Election Commission is expected to meet Wednesday and set March 8 as a referendum date on the MCS action.

Meanwhile, the way has been laid for quick passage of legislation in Nashville that could stop the movement toward charter surrender in its tracks. Or so thinks its sponsor, state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville, the Republican majority leader.

Says Norris: “I would think that timely passage of my proposed bill would render that [the outcome of a charter-transfer referendum] moot. I doubt that they would have that referendum. If they did, I think it would be a nullity.”

His bill, based on his reading of Title 49, Chapter 2 ), Part 12 of the state legal code, a portion dealing with consolidation of school systems within the same jurisdiction, prescribes a method similar to the one just rejected by the MCS board. Like that SCS plan, Norris’ calls for a period of study, followed by a referendum prepared jointly by representatives of both affected systems. Unlike the SCS plan, the referendum contemplated by Norris’ bill would require dual approval by separate votes in city and county.

The bill is certain to be fast-tracked once the General Assembly reconvenes on February 7. It could therefore be on its way to becoming law before the presumed referendum date in Memphis of March 8 (the Election Commission was scheduled to meet on Wednesday to formalize that date) and before the March 21 date specified in the city council resolution.

Clearly, given the plethora of alternative legal realities, adjudication in the courts will be required to sort them out, and that could be a time-consuming process.

There are indications, however, that a genuine compromise solution may be in the works. School Board member Jeff Warren proposed a variant of it at Tuesday night’s Board meeting. He floated an alternative to the SCS plan that envisioned a consolidated system subdivided into five discrete administrative districts, supervised by a Chancellor. His plan was foredoomed Tuesday night by his provision for a countywide vote to achieve the system.

At one point, fellow Board member Stephanie Gatewood admonished Warren, who has put forth a series of would-be compromise plans, to no avail. “This is the fourth time you’ve tried to recreate, revise, or re-edit,” she said, pointing out that so far the other side had shown no interest in his suggestions.

Even so, Warren vowed afterward to continue trying to find some middle ground. And plans similar to the one he vented Tuesday night are in general circulation. Personalities as diverse as former mayor Willie Herenton, councilman Flinn, and state Senator Norris have all floated variants of the five-sub —district idea. Even David Pickler, the SCS board chairman whose talking out loud about seeking special school district status for SCS precipitated the current crisis, said Tuesday night the option might be worth considering “if we end up with a consolidated district.”

An awful lot of verbal hair-splitting continues to go on, with various parties to the controversy (notably anti-surrender Board member Kenneth Whalum on Tuesday night) pointing out that the current battle is being fought out not along lines of consolidation per se but concerning issues of charter “surrender” or “transfer.”

But a consolidated district is the projected end point of all the separate skirmishes, as everyone well knows, and that’s what the current war is all about.

See also John Branston's report.


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