Two unexpected complications followed in the aftermath of last week's successful citywide referendum to transfer authority for Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools. One was the out-of-nowhere statement last Thursday by Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who in a conversation with Capitol Hill reporters in Nashville took note of Tuesday's referendum results and opined that, as an alternative or preamble to merger, this might be the time for the state to take over direct administration of MCS.
The Memphis school system was one that "by anybody's measure is failing," Ramsey contended. The Norris-Todd bill, passed earlier in the session and designed to structure the forthcoming merger, was a step in the right direction, he said. "If we hadn't passed that bill, we'd be in limbo right now." There was a "but" clause, though. "I'd like to see us go further than that and see if we can take over that school system, certain schools down there, and see if we can't turn that around."
Ramsey said the mechanism for such a takeover would be legislation passed last year activating a provision of the 1993 law that created the state's Basic Education Program. The legislation allows for the creation of state Achievement School Districts in the case of academically failing school systems.
That action might not happen during the current legislative session, Ramsey acknowledged. And, in the first of what will likely be many refutations of his proposal, MCS superintendent Kriner Cash challenged Ramsey: "The state is not equipped to take over MCS. They don't know this system. Come and watch. Come to our schools. See what we actually do. ... Get the facts. Take a walk with me around our schools and into our community and I think you'll change your mind, Lieutenant Governor."
Next came a letter on Monday to Shelby County Commission chairman Sidney Chism from Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell declining to sign onto the commission's plans for a transition to an all-county school board.
Luttrell advised that with "great deliberation" he had chosen not to sign the package, which included an ordinance and two resolutions that the commission recently passed in order to begin its own plan of transition to an expanded all-county school board.
The mayor's stated reason was that the measures — which increased the number of current SCS board members and provided for interviewing, then appointing candidates to fill the new seats — conflict with the Norris-Todd bill, passed by the General Assembly on February 11th. That bill, later signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam, provided for a two-and-a-half-year itinerary toward merger and prescribed a planning commission to which Luttrell and others were to make appointments.
In line with a prior advisory from Kelly Rayne, his appointee as county attorney, Luttrell described Norris-Todd as "the prevailing authority ... presumed constitutional until such time that it is successfully challenged."
Informed of the letter's contents, Chism said, "It's political. Obviously, I don't agree. It's obvious, too, that the bill [Norris-Todd] is unconstitutional, and it's hard to imagine that a judge would ignore the will of the people who voted on March 8th." Chism also noted that Luttrell had not attempted to veto the commission package. "His signature doesn't matter. He knows we would override a veto. We're going straight ahead with our plans."
Another commissioner who supports the commission's merger package is Mike Ritz, a Republican like Luttrell (and like state senator Mark Norris and state representative Curry Todd, authors of the Norris-Todd bill). Ritz said of Luttrell, "Maybe he expects us to use the attorney we hired [Leo Bearman] to sue him. We haven't considered anything like that yet." Like Chism, Ritz said he doubted any additional actions were required to implement the commission's package: "We're going to follow our schedule — interviewing candidates on March 23rd and appointing members on the 28th."