As of this week, the volcanic local issue involving the school systems of Memphis and Shelby County has spilled over into the corridors of state government. Big time. Not only will the General Assembly begin this week to consider in earnest bills dealing with the issue, but Governor Bill Haslam stepped in on Tuesday morning with a full-dress press conference at the state Capitol to consider the matter.
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 8th 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," Haslam said.
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 the 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 Tennessee Code Ann. §49-5-203(d) in the context of a change in any governmental structure or organization." The statute, he says, 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 writes 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 15th for receipt of "a personnel plan for teachers" and a second deadline of March 1st 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 noncompliance 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 8th 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.
• As the action prepared to shift to the General Assembly, yet another local summit meeting was scheduled for City Hall on Tuesday afternoon, involving legislators, city council members, county commissioners, and other interested parties. It would be missing some of the major players, though. State senator Beverly Marrero, a Midtown Democrat serving as this year's chair of the Shelby delegation, said that she had experienced difficulty talking local Republican members into attending.
With the legislature firmly in Republican hands for the first time since Reconstruction, GOP members, who chair all the committees in the Senate and House and can totally control the flow of legislation, are spending much of their time in Nashville, where the General Assembly will reconvene on Monday, after a three-week recess following the inauguration of Governor Haslam on January 15th.
"I understand they're getting their program ready, but I still had hoped that some of them could take time off to attend the meeting. We've got to try to reach some understanding," said Marrero. She was fatalistic, however, about attempting to block Republican-sponsored bills designed to obstruct the forthcoming citywide referendum on MCS charter-surrender or to impede the possible merger of MCS-SCS.
"They've got the votes and the power, and all we can do is try to make our case and persuade them to look at the big picture," Marrero said.
Lieutenant Governor Ramsey created something of a sensation last week when he announced — as his Republican counterpart, House speaker Harwell, had previously — that he intended to fast-track bills by two GOP senators from Shelby County.
One, by Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, would basically call for a delay in a referendum on MCS charter surrender as well as require a dual vote by city and county. Another, by state senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown, would in effect mandate a state takeover of Memphis City Schools as "non-performing schools" if MCS should end up surrendering its charter.
Both bills were due for consideration by the Senate education committee on Wednesday, but only Norris' bill was also on the finance committee calendar for later Wednesday afternoon — an indication that the Norris bill would be moved to quick passage while Kelsey's legislation might be given only a fair hearing.
What might happen in the event of the passage of legislation contradicting the verdict of Memphis voters on March 8th remained unclear, even in the wake of the Haslam press conference, and will almost certainly be resolved in the course of subsequent litigation.
• "I'll be long gone." That was Kriner Cash's half-serious jest in a conversation Friday night about when the end-point might finally be reached in the ongoing wrangle between MCS and SCS. Cash has no immediate plans to ship out or to give up the commitment to long-term educational reform of the city's schools. The quip was just his acknowledgment of what everybody suspects: that whatever the results of the referendum on MCS charter surrender, a morass of litigation and cross-purposes lies ahead. Cash was asked whether he envisions a further role with a newly consolidated city/county school system if the referendum should pass, making Shelby County Schools — or Shelby County government or mayhap some newly created county entity — the overseer of the new system.
"There's no guarantee I would continue on," he said. And "there's no guarantee that I would want to continue on."
• So gripping has the issue of possible consolidation of the two local school systems become that the action that purportedly precipitated the crisis has begun to seem somewhat secondary. That was SCS board chairman David Pickler's statement the day after last November's state elections that the big Republican margins provided in legislative races made it a propitious time to seek special-school-district status for SCS.
But all may not have been what it seemed. MCS board member Martavius Jones, who, along with board colleague Tomeka Hart, began the move toward a December 20th vote by the board to authorize a charter-surrender referendum, acknowledged to the Flyer that on Election Night, he, too, had read the election results as being favorable to an SSD move for the county schools and made plans accordingly.
While viewing televised returns at the headquarters of Rebuild Government, Jones confided that now might be the right time to surrender the MCS charter and force consolidation of the two districts. "But if Pickler had not said what he said, I'm not sure I would have proceeded right away," Jones said.