BOMBSHELL OR DUD?
If the current scramble to reconfigure the school systems of Shelby County were a board game, then the card played Tuesday afternoon by Memphis city council attorney Allen Wade would have been marked Bombshell in big letters on its backside.
The fine print on the other side, as Wade outlined it to a rapt audience of council members and onlookers at the councils retreat at the Oaksedge complex, was that the Memphis school board, which city mayor Willie Herenton wants to abolish, has no legal right to exist in the first place.
Wade passed out copies of his legal opinion that two conditions -- the failure to renew a 99-year charter creating the school board in 1869 and state laws distinguishing between special school districts so chartered and municipal systems -- made the currently constituted city school board null and void.
Though some partisans of Herentons proposal to dissolve the board in favor of county control of all schools were delighted (notably council member TaJuan Stout-Mitchell), members of the Memphis school board itself seemed unfazed.
Deni Hirsch, who attended the retreat as a spectator, merely noted, Were here. Its a fact, while her colleague Lora Jobe responded later, Wade needs to research a little longer. Obviously we exist.
And even Wade seemed to acknowledge that , just as certain published rules of thermodynamics preclude a bumblebees ability to fly but did not prevent such a thing occuring, the council lawyers mere statement would not by and of itself cause the school board -- which this week ratified a rival reorganization plan proposed by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton -- to up and go away. Just as one still encounters bumblebees in the air, so one can find school board members meeting, drawing their modest pay, running for election -- and making policy on the wing.
Herenton, who made a pitch for his single-district proposal to the council members -- similar to one he had made previously to Shelby County legislators -- scoffed at the action of the school board, which he had castigated for a solid month before formally proposing its dissolution last week.
In its wisdom, the board had approved the Wharton plan, Herenton noted sarcastically , pointedly adding, and I use that term advisedly. In the county mayors plan, the city board would enable the construction of new school facilities in Shelby county by waiving its right to its share of capital construction funding, according to the state Average Daily Attendance (ADA) formula which allocates such finds to the city and county on a 3:1 ratio.
Both the mayor and city finance director Joseph Lee made the case to council members that costs of maintaining a unitary school system in place of separate city and county systems would be more economical in the long run. They acknowledged, as did Wade, that the means to achieving a unitary system would involve a transfer of authority from the city board to the Shelby County school board, not an arbitrary surrender of the city boards charter, achieved presumably by popular referendum.
A presentation in favor of the Herenton proposal by public relations executive Becky West was greeted skeptically by several council members, who saw its polled conclusions seemingly favoring the plan to be based on what council members Janet Hooks and Tom Marshall called skewed -- or leading -- questions.
The state's financial crunch, warned about by a cost-cutting Governor Phil Bredesen last week, is likely to cut quite close to home. Or so believes Rufus Jones, the able city lobbyist who served more than a decade in the state House of Representatives before leaving to make an unsuccessful run
for Congress in 1996.
"If we don't heal this split, we're going to be losing dollars. Every which way," said Jones at a Tuesday lunch at
the University of Memphis, which followed a meeting of the Shelby County delegation with various government officials.
The "split," as Jones defined it, is the widening gap in opinion between spokespersons for the city of Memphis on one hand and variouscounty entities on the other over the issue of education specifically, how to amend relations between the Memphis school system and the Shelby County system.
Both Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and county mayor A C Wharton were heard from by the legislators, as were various suburban mayors, speaking more or less as a body. Neither the twain nor the triad met, and that is more or less what Jones had in mind.
Disunity over the school-reorganization issue -- Herenton proposes consolidation, the suburban mayors are adamant against it, and Wharton splits the difference -- is an impediment to agreements on a variety of other issues for which the city and county need state aid.
The newly elected chair of the legislative delegation, Rep. Carol Chumney of Midtown, is still hopeful that the various conflicts can evolve into a regional consensus, however. To this end she has proposed broadening delegation contacts in Nashville with those of adjoining Tennessee counties and in Memphis with those of counties in adjoining states.
"We need more people sitting at the table. From all around," Chumney said this week. "We need a combined urban-suburban consensus on the school issue." Though she ran for county mayor last year on a platform which emphasized city/county consolidation, she is leery of solutions like that proposed by Herenton which emphasize a sudden dissolution of divisions into one unitary school system.
"It's always a good idea to get the facts out before rushing forward with something,"said Chumney, who noted that Herenton had proposed many dramatic initiatives in the past, only to "drop them like a hot potato." Of the Memphis mayor's current proposal to unify the schools by abolishing the Memphis school board by referendum, legislative action, or whatever other means proves necessary Chumney observed skeptically, "Is this a serious thing? Or just the idea of the week.?"
Economic ideas like the desirability of impact or development fees should get a fair hearing before consolidation, lest the city and county property tax be counted on to pay for increased short-term costs, Chumney said.