Council Reacts to "High-Handed" Legislature by Voting to Dissolve MCS

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Mayor Wharton addresses the Council before Thursday nights vote.
  • JB
  • Mayor Wharton addresses the Council before Thursday night's vote.
Just hours after the Republican-dominated House of Representatives in Nashville acted in party-line lockstep to pass SB25, the Norris-Todd bill, the Memphis City Council voted with an equally impressive unanimity Thursday evening to accept the dissolution of the Memphis City Schools board — thereby ratifying the board’s December 20 vote to dissolve itself.

After minimal debate, the Council cast 10 votes Aye and no votes Nay, with recusals from council members Ed Ford and Bill Morrison, both of whom are employed by MCS. The vote jump-started an acceptance that,by the terms of an earlier Council action, would not have become official until after a forthcoming March 8 citywide referendum on MCS charter surrender.

The Council thereby became the second local legislative body in as many days to respond decisively to a General Assembly measure that is clearly designed to delay, thwart, or transcend the looming merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools. The Shelby County Commission, meeting in committee, had voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to formally oppose SB25, to hire lawyer Leo Bearman as a litigator to that end, and to begin the process of creating an interim all-county school board.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, who becomes the de facto executor of MCS under the private legislative act which enabled the Council vote, made no effort to hide his anger at the Norris-Todd bill — which, among other things, would co-opt the March 8 referendum, facilitate the ultimate establishment of one or more special school districts in the Shelby County suburbs, and set up a 21-member “planning commission” on consolidation that would exclude the mayor and any potential appointees of his.

Wharton told reporters afterward that the Council action “directs me to file a plan of dissolution and to enter into negotiations with the county to see that the affairs of Memphis City Schools are carried out. “ Asked to elaborate, he spelled that out to mean the Shelby County Schools board, which under state law would become the governing agency for the city schools.

The mayor added: “I say that with a bit of anger because I’ve learned in the last few days …that the rules change when people in Memphis do things that the gods in Nashville don’t like. They may change the rules tonight... …Even if the people were not to vote, this action stands on its own.”

That last point was stated also by Council chairman Myron Lowery, who, in preparing Council members for the vote, professed the belief that the Council's action would stand muster even in the unlikely event of a No vote in the March 8 referendum on transfer of MCS authority to the SCS board.

But Lowery entertained no prospect that the referendum effort would fail. Like Wharton, he saw local attitudes as likely to be galvanized by Thursday morning’s action of the state House, the video of which was carried online and widely seen locally.

“Memphis received a slap in the face and we were disregarded. We couldn’t even get an amendment where our mayor would be part of the committee to deal with this transition,” Lowery said.

“We acted under state law. We did not try to change the law in the middle of the game….Citizens are tired and fed up. The actions of the state legislature have unified Memphians in this community.”

Those who may have been undecided had resolved their doubts, the Council chairman said, predicting that the referendum measure would “pass overwhelmingly as a result of the strong-arm tactics that have been taken in the state legislature.”

Like most people who have followed t e developing school crisis, Wharton and Lowery expect the courts to have to adjudicate matters ranging from questions about the merger of the two school systems to the question of special school districts.

An immediate issue is that of whether MCS ceased to exist as of Thursday night or would only do so after a phasing-out period, possibly timed to conclude with the March 8 referendum.

The City Council’s attorney, Allan Wade, had advised the Council before its vote that MCS “would continue to exist only for the purpose of winding up their affairs.”

Mayor Wharton concurred: “My legal teaching tells me they’re out of existence. In the event that higher authorities concur in my belief that they no longer have any authority this would give — it’s an old law that’s been on the books for some times, that gives the city the responsibility to step in, no less, when a city school system goes out of existence and there are affairs that must be taken care of.”

Another issue concerns the point at which the county commission can enter the process by acting on its own transition plan. Wharton seemed open to the possibility that the commission could begin doing so immediately, as did MCS board member Martavius Jones, who with colleague Tomeka Hart had authored the idea of dissolving the school board’s charter.

That resonated with county commissioner Mike Ritz, who has actively pushed for the commission to implement its own transition plan, including the creation of new district lines across Shelby County and the appointment of interim members of an expanded board.

Ritz, a Republican, agreed with Wharton and Lowery that the legislature’s “high-handed” action had increased pro-merger opinion within Memphis and created an impetus for expediting the process.

Council chairman Myron Lowery, Jim Strickland, and Reid Hedgepeth listen to a speaker from the audience.
  • JB
  • Council chairman Myron Lowery, Jim Strickland, and Reid Hedgepeth listen to a speaker from the audience.

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