In the Stretch 

Even as the vote loomed, efforts to dismount from the schools crisis continued.

One of our senior eminences here at 460 Tennessee Street is fond of saying, at this or that historically significant moment, that "events are in the saddle." The phrase surely describes the continuing state of flux regarding the school consolidation crisis (or "issue" if you are able to take a relaxed view of things).

The big question as Memphis and Shelby County turned into a New Year, though, was whether a dismount might be arranged. And various worthies — including, reportedly, both Memphis mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell — were still working on achieving some kind of "compact" between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools that might stave off a looming city referendum on surrender of the MCS charter.

One local official whose actions have been central to the disposition of the case is Bill Giannini, chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission (SCEC). It is the Election Commission which was charged with setting an election date once the MCS board voted 5-4 on December 20th to call such a referendum.

In some circles, Giannini became suspect of plotting a delay because of various procedural questions he made a point of referring to state election coordinator Mark Goins. But as of Monday, the SCEC chair was speaking in reasonably firm terms of February 15th as the date for a referendum on the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter.

The Election Commission was scheduled to meet on Wednesday — the day, alas, on which our freshly printed issue first hits the streets — to resolve the matter.

Only three things could obstruct such a resolution, Giannini said: a rescinding by the MCS board of its December 20th vote to call for the referendum; a judicial intervention of some sort; or some action by Goins to stop or postpone the referendum.

Members of the MCS board — both pro and con on the charter surrender — made it clear they wouldn't be acting, despite the swearing-in Monday of new member Sara Lewis, who has said she opposes the referendum. There has been no suggestion of court activity. And Giannini had, as of Tuesday, heard no word yet from Goins.

Perhaps the most controversial of the questions he had presented to the coordinator concerned the issue of whether Shelby County voters outside the Memphis city limits should be allowed to take part in the referendum.

As it happened, David Pickler, the Shelby County Schools board chairman whose call for special-school-district legislation for SCS precipitated the current crisis, was continuing to insist that "the 30 percent" of county residents outside Memphis should have a voice in the referendum.

Asked at a press conference Monday why outer-countians, who don't vote for MCS board members, should be able to vote on the surrender of the city school charter, Pickler said residents of the outer county paid county taxes that were distributed to city schools (an ironic variation on Memphis residents' contention some years ago that they should have a vote on selecting county school board members because their tax money also goes to county schools).

Besides, Pickler said, it was understood that the surrender of the charter would be "equivalent to consolidation," and that fact entitled all county residents to vote.

Reminded of criticism at a December 15th "summit" meeting of local officials that he had not specified a reason for pursuing special-school-district status for SCS, Pickler said it was the threat of action like that which the MCS board has now taken which prompted his urgency. "We had no other recourse" for preserving the de facto independence of SCS, he said.

Asked afterward if that answer might be circular in the sense that it left unstated the reason for desiring independence, Pickler cited SCS's relatively high level of academic achievement. He added, "We don't mind saying that we have achieved results as a district that are worth preserving."

Many of the reservations about merger of the two school systems that he and SCS superintendent John Aitken voiced at their Monday press conference had to do with the confusion and disruptions that short-order consolidation might incur.

Pickler noted that, unlike MCS, SCS had not been moved to establish charter or optional schools, suggesting that "our standards" were high enough system-wide so as not to require them.

He was candid when asked about possible loopholes in the aforesaid "compact" still being pursued by Mayors Wharton and Luttrell and by such other figures as MCS board member Jeff Warren.

That agreement would require solemn commitments from the two school boards and other officials, especially members of the Shelby County legislative delegation, to observe a three-year period of mutual consultation during which neither the city system's charter surrender nor the county system's wish for a special school district would be pursued.

But, when pressed on the point, Pickler acknowledged that it was possible — even likely — that, regardless of any go-slow understanding reached between MCS and SCS and between members of the county's legislative delegation, the forthcoming General Assembly would pass legislation striking down a prohibition against creating new school districts.

The Tennessee School Boards Association will be seeking to get such a bill passed, which could be introduced by a legislator from elsewhere in the state.

And, though a "private act" affecting Shelby County specifically would be a necessary next step in creating a new special school district for the county, someone from outside the county could introduce that bill also, Pickler conceded. "It's happened before," he said, remembering a bill once introduced on another county's behalf by Memphis state senator John Ford.

• Three declared candidates for the chairmanship of the Tennessee Democratic Party took turns in Nashville Monday night answering questions about the party's future and what they might be able to do about it.

The exchange between Wade Munday, Chip Forrester, and Matt Kuhn was monitored by a statewide audience of sorts, though, thanks to a glitch in transmission, to both see it and hear it required a simultaneous telephone and online hook-up — a circumstance that often made following the conversation awkward.

The elaborate courtesy the three rivals showed each other (with an occasional zinger coming in between the lines) and the political vagueness of much of what was said made it difficult to sort out the responses.

Forrester's position was unique, in that he is the current chairman seeking a second two-year term. Indeed, the need for continuity in following through with initiatives already begun was a note he struck more than once in his answers to questions relayed by the event's two emcees.

Munday, the party's former communications director, emphasized the need to create a party "infrastructure" and stressed his past experience as a fund-raiser.

Kuhn, a past Shelby County Democratic chairman and the only non-Nashvillian among the three, lobbied for a "40 under 40" initiative, whereby the party should actively recruit a new generation of candidates.

A striking feature of the discourse was the acknowledgement by all three candidates that Tennessee Democrats were now a "minority party" and had to deal forthrightly with that fact. All three agreed that the party should maintain a critical stance in regard to the Republicans as the party in power.

• At least one Tennessee Democrat, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, is in no mood to back off his support of his party's national agenda. Speaking at the annual New Year's Day prayer breakfast hosted by city councilman Myron Lowery, Cohen made a point of referring to soon-to-be-former House speaker Nancy Pelosi as "an outstanding speaker of the House and a great human being."

Cohen had some kind words also for the state's incoming Republican governor, Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, whom he characterized as a "moderate" and whom he said he expected some good things of — including an open mind toward increased funding for the Med.

The congressman repeated his opposition to the tax bill agreed upon by President Obama and the GOP's congressional leadership and passed during the recent "lame duck" session. And he condemned the continuing Republican opposition to last year's health-care legislation. "You can't come to a prayer breakfast ... without thinking, What would Jesus think about health care?" Cohen said.

But, like the candidates for the state Democratic chairmanship, Cohen was forced to acknowledge that, in his branch of Congress, at least, the Republicans would be in control and needed to be held to a standard. "They're going to have to lead," Cohen said. "They can't just say no."



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