Confronting the Unknown 

County schools and county government enter into a new cycle with basic questions unanswered.

Even as the fate of Shelby County's schools was an inevitable and implicit backdrop to budget and tax negotiations on the Shelby County Commission (see below), six suburban municipalities were launched on their second effort to approve the separate suburban school systems that they are already collecting taxes for.

The municipalities of Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, Arlington, and Millington all voted in 2012 in favor of establishing separate school systems for themselves in conformity with legislation in Nashville, as well as for the half-cent sales-tax increases to pay for them. The taxes would remain, but the school votes were nullified when U.S. district judge Hardy Mays found the authorizing legislation to be unconstitutional.

In this year's legislative sessions, state senator Mark Norris and state representative Curry Todd, both Collierville Republicans, recast their former bills as applying statewide, and the suburbs were entitled to try again.

All six suburbs are expected to vote yes as before, in an election process that began with early voting last week and will conclude next Tuesday, July 16th.

For the time being, though, the Shelby County Unified School System holds sway throughout the county's boundaries, though it shares its jurisdictional and geographic space with an array of charter schools and state-controlled special districts.

The old Memphis City Schools system officially expired on July 1st, and Shelby County Schools has expanded and metamorphosed into the (temporarily) unified system.

Though everyone expects the six new municipal districts to be in existence a year from now, with plans for eventual coalescence into some combination vaguely like the old SCS system, numerous issues remain unresolved — including the means of making over existing school properties to the suburbs, the fate of students in unincorporated areas, and the reshuffling of employee rosters when de-merger becomes necessary.

click to enlarge Commission chairman-elect James Harvey
  • Commission chairman-elect James Harvey

• The fate of Shelby County's schools was very much involved with the unforeseen developments and unexpected outcomes that marked the resolution of two vital matters by the county commission this week. These were the fate of county mayor Mark Luttrell's proposed $4.38 tax rate, which was rejected by the commission on third reading; and the selection of a new chairman for 2013-14, dark horse contender James Harvey.

The chairmanship issue was first on the agenda but ended up being deferred until a decision on the tax rate had been reached. That the two issues were related was clear, and Harvey's victory, in a multi-ballot contest with current chairman Mike Ritz and Commissioner Steve Mulroy, undoubtedly owed something to his vote against the tax rate proposal.

The meeting had gotten under way with the nomination of Ritz, Mulroy, and Harvey, and, after several ballots had been taken on the chairmanship, it became obvious that the commission's 13 votes were so evenly and unchangeably distributed among the three contenders that no immediate resolution was likely.

Though there were modest fluctuations from ballot to ballot, the votes conformed to a fairly rigid pattern.

Ritz, a Republican who during his year at the helm had essentially presided over a coalition with the commission's seven Democrats, had solid commitments from Democrats Walter Bailey, who nominated him; Vice Chair Melvin Burgess; and Sidney Chism, along with Republican Steve Basar.

Democrat Mulroy, though he has in his two terms carved out a reputation as the commission's leading liberal, began the voting with a solid corps of supporters from the body's Republican right wing — Heidi Shafer, who nominated him; Chris Thomas; and Wyatt Bunker.

This odd-looking allegiance was based on those Republicans' wish to have done with Ritz, from whom they are estranged, along with a sense that the victory of a Democrat, together with his support for restoring the pattern of alternating annual chairmanships between Republicans and Democrats, was desirable.

Democrat Harvey, an independent-minded eccentric with a spotty attendance record and a habit of making rambling speeches on issues during which he seemingly changes his position back and forth, was something of a variable. He was nominated by Terry Roland, the gonzo Republican from Millington, who nurses grievances against both Ritz and Mulroy, and got support from Democrats Henri Brooks and Justin Ford, two other freebooters famous for keeping their own counsel.

Once the fact of impasse was recognized and the commission shelved the chairmanship matter temporarily to deal with the tax rate, discussion turned rancorous, with Democrat Bailey denouncing opposition to the Luttrell formula as ideologically driven "political posturing" and actually proposing an additional 4 cents for the schools, while Shafer and Bunker took turns mocking what they characterized as a faux annual funding urgency and proposed a return to the previous year's $4.02 tax rate, based on overall property-value assessments that have since declined.

The key moment in the debate came early when Harvey made it obvious that, as he had indicated in a recent committee meeting, he would not support the Luttrell tax rate, which he had favored on its initial reading last month. What had once appeared to be a slam-dunk prospect of passage for the tax rate unraveled further with the unexplained opposition of Justin Ford, another prior supporter.

There might still have been a chance of passing the $4.38 tax rate, which Luttrell, in a plea to the commission's GOP contingent, characterized as consistent with responsible Republican conservatism, in that Basar, an on-the-fence Republican, was presumed to be willing to be the seventh vote for the tax rate if a sixth could be found.

But with Harvey and Ford both opting out, there remained only abject recuser Sidney Chism, who, concerned about conflict-of-interest charges being pressed against him by Roland on the basis of Chism's receiving county wraparound funds for his day-care center, has declined to follow the defiant example of colleague Burgess, a consistent tax-rate supporter who was similarly accused by Roland on the basis of his receiving a county-funded school salary.

Thus it was that on the final tally the Luttrell tax rate failed, mustering only five votes and laying a serious challenge to the commission, which, as Ritz pointed out, has already begun the new fiscal year, committing funds that were budgeted on the assumption of the $4.38 tax rate — which is now at least temporarily defunct.

Between now and the next public meeting of the full commission on July 22nd, the commission must somehow find a new resolve — and a new coalition — on behalf of the Luttrell tax rate or arrive upon a new tax rate and, along with it, a hastily revamped budget.

One possibility, discussed late in Monday's session and known to be advocated by Basar, is a tax rate of $4.32, the amount of the state-formulated "certified tax rate," a formula which, given the latest property assessments, would provide the same amount of funding as the previous year's. As Basar sees it, Luttrell's proposed school funding would remain intact, with deductions in the county's general fund amounting to some $10 million.

Ritz, now a lame-duck chairman and a supporter of the original Luttrell proposal, will bend his efforts to getting the best deal he can, while his successor, Harvey, awaits his moment of authority, which will come in September.

In a nutshell, once the tax-rate vote had been taken and the commission's attention had returned to the chairmanship matter, the same deadlock prevailed as had been in place before, with neither Ritz nor Mulroy, the presumed main contenders, willing to yield. Finally, the impasse was broken in a chain reaction started by Basar, who switched off Ritz to go for Harvey, who only moments before had seemed an also-ran about to be eliminated.

Meanwhile, the corps of conservatives, who were determined above all to spurn Ritz and who had consistently supported Mulroy, a firm supporter of Luttrell's tax-rate proposal, had apparently begun seeing Harvey, who had voted their way on the tax rate, as a plausible alternative and followed Basar's lead.

There was a brief sequel to the chairmanship vote in a three-way contest for chairman pro tem between Mulroy, Shafer, and Basar. When Mulroy, who clearly was half-hearted about that office, which clearly is no longer a prelude to a next-year's chairmanship, withdrew, Basar triumphed 7-6 over Shafer.

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