City Voters Chart New Direction with 2-to-1 Victory for Charter Referendum

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Confounding those who imagined a close contest down to the wire, and for that matter those who foresaw a meager turnout, 71,424 Memphis voters — a not insignificant number for a special election — came to the polls on Tuesday and registered their approval of a transfer of the authority of Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools.

The vote was 47,912 for to 23,612 against — a margin of better than 2 to 1.The result led some to wonder what might have happened if the spokespersons for suburban interests had gotten their way and the entire county voted. Even pollster Berje Yacoubian, who sees the referendum failing in that context, thinks it would have been razor-thin close.

The outcome provoked Churchillian echoes from observers — MCS Board member Jeff Warren, a foe of the referendum, doing a variation on the theme of never-have-so-many-been-so-wrong-about-so-much, and Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn, a supporter of the referendum, terming the result, a la Churchill as the tide of World War II changed, as not yet the Beginning of the End, but “The End of the Beginning.”

Flinn’s borrowed trope is accurate. The unexpectedly large margin of victory for charter transfer (a.k.a., consolidation of MCS with SCS) ushers in the next phase of the contest — which will occur in the courts.

Everybody will be suing everybody, and, most importantly, the Norris-Todd bill, passed by the Republican-dominated legislature last month, will almost certainly be targeted by somebody reasonably soon on grounds that its co-optation of the merger results amounts to an ex post facto action and that its 21-member planning commission is slanted toward suburban interests to the point that it violates the one man/one vote precepts of Baker v. Carr.

Whether Norris-Todd withstands challenge or not, its mandated 2 1/2 —year planning period would seem to negate any prospect that the legislature will move sooner to strike down prohibitions against new special or municipal school Districts. The bill allows for such districts to be considered for Shelby County, but no sooner than August 2013, when the bill ordains that the MCS-SCS merger be completed.

For its part, SCS has filed suit in federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment against MCS; the City Council, which has voted to accept charter surrender; and the Shelby County Commission, which is proceeding to create a package of all-county school districts and will shortly be interviewing candidates for positions.

However complex things become, there is the root fact that, unless the election is found to have been unconstitutional, MCS will soon become a thing of the past. A de facto consolidation of city and county schools will occur — whether on the August 2012 timetable of the county commission or on that of Norris-Todd, scheduled to accomplish the deed a year later.

Almost certainly, the “chancery” method of consolidation, which envisions five or six separate and somewhat autonomous sub-districts in a consolidated county system, will form the basis for discussion among those who have favored a merger or who now see it as inevitable.

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