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Roads Not Taken

Harmony on city/county school consolidation? You can’t get there from here.

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In the same way that, proverbially, all roads once ran to Rome, all breaking-news issues seem these days to run to the intractably divisive matter of school consolidation.

Projected budget shortfalls for the forthcoming Unified School District have dominated recent headlines in their own right. They also link to all the lingering discontent of the suburbs regarding the matter — both locally and in Nashville, where suburbanites and their legislative allies are expected to make another run at bills enabling municipal school districts.

The shortfalls, estimates of which now range from $80 million to upwards of $150 million, were the occasion for a press conference Monday in the lobby of the Vasco Smith county building, at which spokespersons for the independence movement urged an end to the Shelby County Commission's ongoing lawsuit against potential MSDs.

Pinning their case on the expected shortfall, they suggested that cuts in school personnel and programs could be avoided by aborting the forthcoming city/county school merger.

In a ruling last year, U.S. district judge Hardy Mays declared unconstitutional 2012 legislation in the General Assembly that would have enabled the fast-track establishment of separate suburban school districts. Still to be adjudicated is the final clause of the 2011 Norris-Todd Act, which would permit efforts to create such districts after August of this year.

As principal spokesman Ken Hoover argued it at the press conference, the proposed MSDs would be financed by taxes already voted by residents of the suburbs, whereas the soon-to-be Unified District faces insuperable obstacles in paying for its services, thereby shortchanging parents in the suburbs as well as those in the former Memphis City Schools.

Later, at the end of the county commission's regular meeting and after a suburban resident or two had addressed the county legislative body on the subject, Hoover came to the dock and presented a distilled version of what he had already spoken to at the press conference.

Not without a full dose of "I-told-you-so" and a taste or two of irony, he focused on the loss, implicit in the proposed Unified School District budget, of 443 positions to the suburban schools — and, even as amended in a revised budget due Tuesday, of no less than 377.

His remarks to the commission were followed by a mini-philippic from Commissioner Terry Roland, who placed the blame for the ongoing litigation — and, by implication, for the seemingly insoluble budget crunch of the Unified System — on the county commission itself, for presuming to take charge of the merger process and establish a structure for it.

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, a onetime member of the old Shelby County Schools board, continued along lines set by his two predecessors, but he concluded with his announcement of "a resolution directing ... our attorney, Leo Bearman, to take all measures necessary to withdraw the county commission's lawsuit opposing the creation of municipal schools."

To be voted on at Monday's meeting required a suspension of the rules, which predictably failed, given the commission's 8-5 balance of power favoring merger proponents. But Bunker will have a chance to add his resolution to the next commission agenda, two weeks hence. And it will no doubt be debated in committee on Wednesday, February 20th.

Meanwhile, Roland, who apparently made a pilgrimage to Nashville last week, and other suburban advocates insist that, despite the reluctance of last year's General Assembly to pass legislation allowing new municipal school districts statewide, this year's legislature will be a different story.

All that is certain is that there will be a Unified School District in 2013-14 that includes the whole of Shelby County. How it gets paid for and what comes after that are questions not yet answered.

• Earlier at the commission meeting, there had been a wrangle over a proposed five-year moratorium on county residence requirements for former Memphis City Schools personnel coming into the county's jurisdiction in the Unified District.

An amendment by Chairman Mike Ritz exempting (or "grandfathering in") employees of MCS who started in 1986 or before was proposed and passed, but no general exemption was enacted despite vigorous arguments by commissioners James Harvey, Steve Mulroy, and others.

The case for a general exemption was countered by several commissioners, notably Heidi Shafer and Walter Bailey, who argued that public employment within Shelby County imposed civic obligations that included taxpaying residence.  

That argument seemed to carry the day. The umbrella exemption failed 6-6.

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