It took more than six hours and enough bloviating and redundancy and hair-splitting — mixed in with spurts of genuine eloquence — to put a Toastmasters’ Convention to shame. But when it was all over and the climactic votes were at hand, the Memphis School Board took the most decisive act in its history (and conceivably one of its very last acts of any kind)— voting 5-4 to allow city voters the privilege of voting Memphis City Schools out of existence.
That referendum — to be held within 45 to 60 days of Monday night’s vote — was a response to the crisis that had been brewing since Shelby County School Board president David Pickler announced last month, in the wake of the November 2 election, that the time seemed ripe for another attempt in the General Assembly to create a special school district for the Shelby County school system.
Pickler’s statement of intent would galvanize MCS Board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart, fearful that a special school district in the county would inevitably drain property tax revenue from the city schools, to float a defensive strategy — that of surrendering the MCS charter, an action which, if approved by city voters, would automatically consolidate city and county schools.
Those two diametrically opposed plans came to be known as “nuclear options,” and they generated feverish attempts, sanctioned by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, to find a third way, some compromise agreement between the two school systems that would forestall a showdown.
Efforts to do so began last week with a summit of city and county officials presided over by city council member Wanda Halbert, and they culminated with a meeting of principal players on Sunday. Out of that came a plan that would freeze both nuclear options for a period of three years, during which mutual consultations would take place and neither would carry out its Doomsday Plan.
Memphis School Board member Jeff Warren proposed a variant of the compromise Monday night, one that was to founder after a good deal of contentious back and forthing, and the admission by MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson that no agreement between the two boards would be legally binding on the Tennessee legislature, already under pressure from the Tennessee School Boards Association to end a prohibition against new school districts.
Ultimately, Warren’s motion was brought to a vote and failed, with Jones, Hart, Sharon Webb, Stephanie Gatewood, and Patrice Robinson voting no, and Kenneth Whalum, Betty Mallott, Warren, and Board president Freda Williams voting yes. The next vote was on the motion to call the referendum on surrendering the charter, and it succeeded 5-4 with the former nay-sayers now the yea-sayers.
Besieged by reporters afterward, Pickler said his Board would meet to discuss a response. He declined to confirm rampant speculation that the Shelby County School Board would vote to seek legislation on behalf of a special school district.
Details to come.