MCS Decision to Postpone Classes “Indefinitely” Casts Shadow on City Election

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Even as the Memphis City Council was concluding a meeting whose major item — approval of new district lines in time for the 2011 election season — went through routinely, a fateful decision taken by the Council three years earlier, to cut back on its annual allotment to Memphis City Schools, was producing a truly seismic disturbance elsewhere in the city.

Several blocks away, the still very much alive MCS board, which had shaken the entire political infrastructure of Memphis and Shelby County by voting to dissolve itself just seven months ago, created new drama with an 8-1 vote to delay the opening of fall classes “indefinitely” until it receives $55 million owed it by Memphis city government under court order.

Unforeseen as it was, and drastic as its consequences could be, the MCS board’s action highlighted several other ongoing circumstances and seemed likely to cast some of them — notably a rumored effort on the City Council to restore pay and benefit cuts for city employees — aside, at least for the time being. Even before news of the MCS action got around, the Council had voted Tuesday night to defer action for two weeks on the employee-pay matter, and the new claim by MCS clearly threatens to make the matter moot.

The MCS move also puts front and center what has been considered an imminent ruling by U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays on consolidated litigation regarding the disposition of pending merger between MCS and Shelby County Schools. Judge Mays, who had indicated that July might be the time frame of his ruling, will decide how and when that merger — necessitated by the MCS charter surrender of last December — goes through.

Both MCS and Memphis city government, which have interests that are at once congruent and conflicting, are represented in that legal proceeding, the outcome of which could quickly become entangled with the settling of accounts between the city and MCS.

On the matter of redistricting, City Council attorney Allan Wade, who also represents the Council in the federal merger suit, fairly effectively dealt with it Tuesday evening, disputing press reports and blogger claims regarding possible hidden agendas and political motives in the reshuffling of district lines. Council members all seemed satisfied with Wade’s explanations of how the lines had been altered to accommodate population shifts reflected in the 2010 census while maintaining the same approximate racial and ethnic balances as before.

District 2 Council member Bill Boyd provided some insight into how redistricting was carried out when he confided to the Flyer that Wade had offered him four different scenarios for redesigning his district, which had become relatively overpopulated since district lines were fixed a decade earlier in response to the census of 2000. “I took the first plan he showed me,” said Boyd, who would relinquish a largely white precinct in the north to District 1, now represented by Bill Morrison, and two largely African American precincts in the south to District 3, whose council member is Harold Collins.

Blogger Steve Ross, whose “Vibinc” blog had repeatedly called for more public deliberations and more timely conclusions on Council redistricting, professed himself dissatisfied with Wade’s claim that there had not been inappropriate delays in announcing district lines. He noted that Nashville’s City Council had managed to resolve its own redistricting plan weeks ago, in ample time for potential candidates to consider their potential constituencies and to make plans. By contrast, he said, Wade had made the new Memphis lines known only a little more than a week ago, and they had not become formal until Tuesday night, two days before the filing deadline for Council positions on Thursday.

In any case, the new Council elected this year may represent slightly amended constituencies but, in the wake of Tuesday night’s actions by the MCS board, will be facing the same problems as its predecessor, only in amplified form.

See also John Branston's take on the MCS-City government conflict.

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