Election Commission Request for State Ruling on MCS Charter Vote Further Roils the Waters



The opponents of city/county school consolidation are nothing if not determined. In little more than a week since the Memphis School Board’s 5-4 vote in favor of a city referendum concerning the surrender of its charter, numerous strategies have been put in play in order to block or hinder that vote and its possible consequences.

The most obvious result, of course, would be the merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County schools, by default.

The mayors and legislative agencies of several suburban municipalities are publicly weighing the option of operating and funding their own school systems in order to avoid what they see as a shotgun wedding with MCS.

Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini
  • JB
  • Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini
Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland, who has floated the idea of secession by parts of suburban Shelby County, is seeking an investigation of the MCS vote, publicly questioning whether MCS Board member Stephanie Gatewood, a candidate to fill a vacancy in the state House, might be compromised in her vote for charter surrender.

State Senator Brian Kelsey and several other suburban legislators are pursuing measures to put the city schools under state control (as “non-performing” institutions) if the proposed referendum should yield a Yes vote.

And now the Shelby County Election Commission is requesting a ruling from state Election Coordinator Mark Goins as to whether state law requires that suburban voters join in the referendum on the surrender of the MCS charter.

EC chairman Bill Giannini, who is seeking guidance on several other aspects of the proposed referendum, told WMC-TV, Action News 5, that the issue of a charter surrender might fall under the same rules as those which required both Memphis and outer-county voters to participate in the November 2 referendum on governmental consolidation of city and county.

"One of the questions out there about this one is the dual-majority vote," said Giannini. "There are arguments that state law provides for dual-majority vote in this case as well.”

Others aren’t buying the logic. Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter, who often uses Twitter to communicate his political responses, tweeted the situation this way: “Based on elec comm ‘logic’ I'm looking forward to seeing amicus in favor of our federal court challenge to dual voting req for consolidation.”

Carpenter’s reference was to a suit which he and other consolidation proponents filed in advance of the November 2 referendum, challenging requirements that two separate votes, by city and county, are needed to approve a consolidation referendum. A federal court has not yet ruled on the motion, which many thought had become moot after the overwhelming defeat of the consolidation referendum. (The term “amicus” is shorthand for “amicus curiae” — “friend of the court” — a means by which sympathizers to a lawsuit can record arguments in favor of it legally.)

Another frequent tweeter, Richard Thompson of the Mediaverse website, re-tweeted this observation from Wayne VanDeveer: “the vote is to dissolve charter, not to consolidate. Non-Memphians have no say in that.”

In any case, the Election Commission request could result in a delay of the proposed charter-surrender referendum while the legalities are being hashed out. And any such delay would give opponents of the school merger an opportunity to rush obstructionist legislation through the General Assembly, which convenes next month.

The MCS Board’s action in calling for the vote on a charter surrender was a response to a post-election statement from Shelby County School Board chairman David Pickler that he intended once again to seek special school district status for the county schools.

Efforts to do so have failed in the past, but election results substantially favoring Republicans, coupled with Pickler’s statement of intent, gave the county’s suburban legislators, all Republicans and most sympathetic to special-school-district status, reason to believe the move could succeed this time.

One issue in the increasingly complex confrontation is that of GOP unanimity. Coincidentally or not, Lakeland resident Giannini and an SCEC majority are Republicans, as are Shelby’s suburban legislators and Coordinator Goins, but other GOP figures — Carpenter and several other Memphis Republicans being cases in point — have different views concerning school and governmental consolidation.

"We are just trying to make sure that the election is called for correctly and will stand up in a court of law, which is probably where this thing will wind up. The only irreversible act in this equation is the Shelby County Election Commission setting an election date. Once that's done, only a court can stop it," Giannini told the Flyer.

Continuing, he said, "I will be stunned if there is not a court ruling or some other event that delays or stops the Election Commission from conducting this election. There are lots of conflicts in the law. Memphis City Schools was founded by a private act of the Tennessee legislature. State law contradicts the city charter in several places regarding MCS."

Giannini stressed his own neutrality on the issue, but said that, given the multiple complications that have arisen concerning the proposed referendum, he considered it possible that the MCS Board might even re-think its action and reverse its vote.

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