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<br />Factions move and counter in high-stakes battle over future of schools

Wait. Time. Trust. With those words interwoven into an unusual meeting, the Memphis City Council on Thursday decided to wait a week before making a move that could lead to the dissolution of Memphis City Schools by a majority vote of Council members. by Karanja A. Ajanaku
and Tony Jones

Wait. Time. Trust.

With those words interwoven into an unusual meeting, the Memphis City Council on Thursday decided to wait a week before making a move that could lead to the dissolution of Memphis City Schools by a majority vote of Council members.

At 4:30 p.m. next Thursday (Feb. 10), the council is scheduled to reconvene. At that time, council members will assess what, if any, movement has been made in Nashville on legislation crafted by Sen. Majority Leader Mark Norris (R. Collierville).

On Wednesday, the latest incarnation of a bill sponsored by Norris picked up the support of the Senate Education Committee. The House Education Committee followed suit on Thursday. Those moves set up the possibility that the Republican-dominated legislature could act on the bills when state lawmakers return to work on Monday.

The Norris-proposed legislation – as now written – would require a three-year planning period before any merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools.

In addition to the planning period, the latest version of Norris’ bill proposes a 21-member transition commission (tilted toward Republicans and Memphis’ suburbs) and would allow special school districts and municipal school districts in Shelby County after control of the City Schools passed to Shelby County Schools.

And, it reflects Norris’ decision to drop the push to allow Shelby County residents outside of Memphis a vote on the March 8 referendum to surrender the Memphis City Schools charter, ceding control to Shelby County Schools.

For City Councilman Shea Flinn, the adjustments Norris has made in his legislative push, are enough of a sign to buy more time – more time to see if Norris would yield in other key areas; more time for “trust” to take root. He proposed waiting until Monday before considering a play of the card that some think would allow the council to Ok the surrender of the MCS charter before Norris-backed legislation could become law.

“I understand that you all want to give Sen. Norris an opportunity,” said Councilman Harold B. Collins. “But I think Sen. Norris demonstrated his character to the citizens of Memphis on the first time. My daddy used to say you never get a second chance to give a first impression. When he did what he did and said what he said, filed what he said initially during the crisis, in my mind it told me the kind of person he is. So I can’t support the motion to delay.”

Flinn responded that the delay provided the opportunity to get a better deal.

“At some point the trust has to start,” said Flinn. “We asked for Memphians to be given the right to vote. Nashville thus far has given them the right to vote.”

Flinn noted that the Norris legislation now moving through the Tennessee General Assembly no longer includes the provision to bring county voters (those outside of Memphis) into the March 8 referendum vote.

“We cannot slap that hand away.”

Flinn’s motion to delay failed when the council split 5-5 on the measure, with two members – Edmund Ford Jr. and Bill Morrison – abstaining because of their work associations with Memphis City Schools. Voting for the delay were Bill Boyd, Kemp Conrad, Flinn, Reid Hedgepeth and Jim Strickland. Opposed were Joe Brown, Collins, Janis Fullilove, Wanda Halbert and Council Chairman Myron Lowery.

That split held when Flinn later amended his motion to adjust the time frame to 4:30 p.m. on Friday (Feb.4).  “Sometime is better than no time,” said Flinn in proposing the second time. “And we need some time to talk to Nashville about this.”

After quizzing Intergovernmental Relations Office Administrator TaJuan Stout-Mitchell about her feel for the situation in Nashville, and noting the 5-5 split, Collins moved to recess the meeting until Feb. 10. That motion passed, with Lowery objecting and Ford and Morrison abstaining.

The measure builds in the option of an earlier meeting, if events warrant.

Council resolution on hold

The council’s wait-and-see move meant no action was taken on the resolution that Collins introduced at the onset of the meeting. That measure would:

Set June 30, 2012 as the completion date for transitioning to a unified school system (about half the time the Norris legislation calls for).

Authorize the mayor to negotiate a joint operating agreement of MCS with Shelby County Schools during the “winding up” period.

Give the mayor and the council more input in the transition than now is called for in the Norris legislation.

What about the governor?

Before the council reached its conclusion, Mayor A C Wharton told the members that he has been in ongoing contact with Gov. Bill Haslam. Any legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly would land on Haslam’s desk before it could become law.

Wharton said the conversations have included aspects of Norris’ legislation that the council opposes, and what would happen if some form of legislation were to become law.

“On the immediate question of the likelihood that something would happen before this body (the council) can get back together, he (Haslam) told me just a minute ago that he is not going to sign anything in rush fashion until we have an opportunity to weigh in on it,” Wharton said.

Mayor Wharton

After Thursday’s meeting, Wharton said considering the makeup of the legislature no one can guarantee that “never, never, never, never, never will the legislature pass a law lifting the ban on special school districts.”

There are things, however, that can be done to shorten the transition period to a merged school system and the makeup of those who oversee the transition process, he said.

The council resolution that Collins introduced addresses those points. It was drafted by the city attorney in conjunction with the mayor’s office.

His administration, said Wharton, had moved (through the resolution) to take advantage of an existing law that allows the city to sign a contract with Shelby County Schools in the advent of the demise of MCS.

“If a vote had been taken today, without anything else that would have been a fatal act in so far as the corporate legal existence of MCS…Even if it were only for 12 hours for someone to get to the court house, what would happen to the legal affairs of MCS?”

Move, countermove

With Norris showing no signs that he intended to blink in his bid to delay and/or derail the so-called consolidation of city and county schools, the council turned a collective eye toward an ace-in-the hole on Wednesday afternoon.

After learning that Norris had secured committee passage his bill, Council Chairman Myron Lowery served notice that the strategically recessed Tuesday (Feb. 1) meeting of the Council would reconvene on Thursday (Feb. 3).

That meant the door was open for consideration of a hedge move that the council created when it voted 10-0 on Jan. 18 to support the City Schools’ Dec. 20 vote clearing a path to a Memphis-only referendum on surrendering the Memphis City Schools Charter. The council, some argue, could conceivably make a move that effectively transfers control of Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools without a referendum.

Republicans – MIA

At a Tuesday session of the Shelby County Legislative Delegation held in Memphis, the tension was high in contemplation of Norris moving forward with his legislative agenda. And it didn’t help that the Republican members of the delegation chose not to attend.

“True government, good government relies on making decisions out in the open, not behind closed doors, and not with a select few representing one element of the state making decisions for everyone in the state.  That is not what democracy is about,” said Lowery, who attended the session.

“As we speak, there is rioting in Egypt because people in power have been unfair. I want to say to every Republican member that is not here that it is not being fair changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

State Rep. Larry Miller said the African-American community should “absolutely be offended” by the moves afoot.

“I’m highly offended. If they attempt to pass this bill we should take them to court because it is openly clear that it is not in the best interest of the majority of the people in Memphis and Shelby County.”

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway told those gathered that the Norris-led action was unconstitutional on state and federal levels.

“We may have to seek injunctive relief from the federal courts,” said Hardaway. “Norris’s law clearly is written to subvert the power of the vote and you cannot have a democracy without protecting our most basic right.”

Fast-moving scenario

Earlier this week, Gov. Bill Haslam let it be known that no merger of the schools could move forward without a transition plan being on his desk and that it must be presented to him within two weeks.  Additionally, a 30-day deadline was given for a full transitional plan.   

Haslam’s move stirred uncut anger from many local Democrats.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., a Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners member, took a different stance. He opposes surrender of the MCS charter.

“It is amazing to see the manner in which many local politicians are reacting to Governor Haslam’s edict. It is as if they don’t understand how state government operates. I believe the unrepentant howling is counterproductive, and sets a terrible example for our children,” said Whalum in an Internet-distributed reflection.

“All this is happening because MCS refuses to accept responsibility for the failings of our educational system. It would be helpful if everyone would take a step back and do some serious introspection and reflection on the word, ‘surrender.’”

Whalum is among those who advocate for Mayor A C Wharton and the City Council detailing why “they still refuse to write the $57 (million) check in obedience to the court’s lawful order.” That’s a reference to a protracted dispute about funds the courts have determined the City should have paid MCS.

In his missive, Whalum concluded that “the racial carping from certain of us” is shameful.
 
“If race is an issue, it is here: A majority Black school board has failed to educate a majority Black school system in a majority Black city with a majority Black city Council.”

Preparing to leave for Nashville to speak before the Senate Education Committee that eventually passed out an amended Norris bill, Memphis Board of Education Commissioner Martavius Jones said he was nearly at a loss for words to describe his reaction.
 
“Memphians, black and white, should be concerned about what they are planning to do.  The bill circumvents past customs and past practices in creating laws, and it has not been done in a transparent way, which should be offensive to everyone,” he said.

“I will admit that Norris has done his homework in crafting the bill, but I can see a couple of major flaws in it and I am hoping that legal minds will find them as well and judge them unconstitutional.”

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