What Haslam had to say might possibly give aid and comfort to both sides in the controversy. Essentially the governor acknowledged that the issue was a local one for Memphis and Shelby County and specifically said the forthcoming March 8 citywide referendum on the transfer of authority for Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools would go on as scheduled. “Nothing we are doing here will impact that vote.”
But he declared that the state had a “legal responsibility and a moral responsibility,” as well as a “common-sense responsibility” to see that any transition preserved the rights of both teachers and the 150,000 students currently enrolled in the two systems.
Haslam said the state Education Commissioner, Patrick Smith, “has to approve any plan as it relates to teachers” and noted that Smith had dispatched a detailed letter on the subject to both MCS superintendent Kriner Cash and SCS superintendent John Aitken.
In the letter, Smith cites”a legal requirement placed upon the Commissioner of Education by Tenn. Code Ann. §49-5-203(d) in the context of a change in any governmental structure or organization.” The statute, says Smith, provides that “[t]he Commissioner must make a determination that the rights and privileges afforded to teachers by Section 49-5-203 are not impaired, interrupted, or diminished by organizational changes like the one proposed by the referendum. “
Smith says elsewhere in the letter,” In order to make a favorable determination that no impairment, interruption or diminution has occurred, the Department must review a comprehensive plan addressing in detail all of the pertinent aspects related to the transition of teachers.” And the letter sets forth a deadline of February 15 for receipt of “a personnel plan for teachers” and a second deadline of March 1 for receipt of “a comprehensive transition plan developed by both school districts…”
An appendage to the letter lists a lengthy variety of subjects to be addressed in the comprehensive transition plan — including student services, facilities and equipment, charter schools, and debt.
Smith also took part in Wednesday’s press conference and pointedly said the Commissioner’s office had “moral authority… to withhold funds in any district anytime there’s non-compliance with a rule or a state stature.”
Haslam said he had been in touch with various parties to the issues involved, including Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, state House speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, and “some members of the Shelby County [legislative] delegation. He said he had talked as recently as Monday night to Wharton and Luttrell and declared he had “great faith and confidence in their leadership.”
In answer to a follow-up question on the March 8 referendum, Haslam repeated his assurances that the vote should go on as scheduled: “I don’t think it’s our place to decide who votes or when the vote happens.” But, in answer to another question about several bills pending in the General Assembly, he said the legislature “has a role,” which it would likely define for itself.