Bill Giannini and David Pickler may still be suspicious characters in the eyes of school-consolidation proponents, a fact which both readily acknowledge, even as both continue to see themselves as being wholly aboveboard.
Shelby County Election Commission chairman Giannini indicated fairly firmly Monday that the commission, at its scheduled Wednesday meeting, would set February 15 as the date for a referendum on the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter.
Only three things could change that, Giannini said — a rescinding by the MCS Board of its December 20 vote to call for the referendum; a judicial intervention of some sort; or some action by state Election Coordinator Mark Goins to stop or postpone the referendum.
The MCS Board apparently won’t be acting, despite the swearing-in Monday of new member Sara Lewis, who opposes he referendum; there has been no suggestion of court activity; and Giannini has had no word yet from Goins, although he has presented a number of questions to the Election Coordinator for a response.
Perhaps the most controversial of those questions concerned the issue of whether Shelby County voters outside the Memphis city limits should be allowed to take part in the referendum.
Pickler, the Shelby County Schools Board chairman whose call for special-school-district legislation for SCS precipitated the current crisis, continues 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 carter, 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 15 “summit” meeting of local officials that he had not specified a specific 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 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 stated earlier by himself and SCS superintendent John Aitken had to do with the confusions 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.
Pickler was candid when asked after Monday's press conference about possible loopholes in a “compact” various officials, including Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, are still pursuing as a means of averting a showdown between the two school districts.
Yes, Pickler acknowledged, it was possible — even likely — that, regardless of any go-slow understanding reached between MCS and SCS and between members of the Shelby County 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 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.