A Communications Gap and a Probing for Answers



The principal players in the schools drama all gathered Monday for the announcement of a new Mitsubishi plant in Memphis. They ranged from state Senator Mark Norris (far left) to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton (far right), with Governor Bill Haslam in the middle.
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  • The principal players in the schools drama all gathered Monday for the announcement of a new Mitsubishi plant in Memphis. They ranged from state Senator Mark Norris (far left) to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton (far right), with Governor Bill Haslam in the middle.

It remains something of a mystery what negotiations may have gone on behind the scenes between Mayor A C Wharton and Governor Bill Haslam — first, in relation to the provisional (now lapsed) deadlines for consolidation plans announced by Haslam and acting Education Comission Patrick Smith, and, later, concerning the ramifications and line items of the Norris-Todd bill.

In the few days between an emergency City Hall summit of local officials two weeks ago and the unveiling of Norris-Todd and its passage last week by paqrty-line votes in the Senate and House, there had been an understanding locally that Wharton would b e interceding with Haslam in order to soften the requirements or the bill’s provisions.

But, despite vigorous efforts by Memphis Democrats and other Democratic legislators, the final version of Norris-Todd contained no ameliorating amendments — not to give Wharton or any other elected city official appointive powers to the planning commission, not to eliminate or modify the special-school-district provision, not even to stipulate that gender and racial diversity would be respected in the make-up of the planning commission

In reality, and despite Haslam’s mention Monday of “daily” conversations with Wharton, there had apparently been very little direct dealing between the two on the issue of modifying the bill. The mayor acknowledged as much Monday, suggesting that surrogates of both men had done such negotiating as may have taken place.

The communications gap had created difficulties for the city’s legislative delegation in Nashville. State Senator Jim Kyle of Memphis, the Democrats’ Senate leader, had volunteered at the City Hall meeting to intercede legislatively but was asked, in effect, to defer to the mayor’s presumed behind-the-scenes efforts.

Right up to the moment that he and fellow Memphis state senator Beverly Marrero took the floor for debate on the measure on Monday night of last week, Kyle had been left without input from City Hall. Such advice as he got was a renewed urging to be cautious.

More or less on their own tack, Kyle and Marrero made speeches of resistance to Norris-Todd. And almost the entirety of the Democratic House delegation from Memphis took the floor to protest the bill and its provisions on Thursday. All to no avail. The votes were 20-10 in the Senate, 64-31 in the House.

Whatever Mayor Wharton had expected in the way of concessions, for whatever reason, had not come to pass, and his angry denunciation on Friday of “the gods of Nashville” and the Council’s unanimous acceptance of the MCS charter surrender that same day (in a parallel course to that of the March 8 referendum, early voting for which began this week) betokened a common rage.
The sense of citywide unity on the issue of self-determination was reflected also on the county commission, which completed action Monday on several resolutions designed to facilitate a transition to a unified all-county school board.

With Republicans Mike Ritz and Mike Carpenter joining the body’s Democrats, the commission approved a series of initiatives— on formally opposing Norris-Todd, on beginning interviews with prospective interim board members, on expanding the current county school board to 27 members, and on hiring attorney Leo Bearman as a litigator.

For its part, the existing Shelby County School Board had filed suit in federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment against the MCS board’s charter surrender as well as the City Council’s action in accepting it.

Despite it all, the MCS Board met Monday night for a regularly scheduled work session and was assured by attorney Dorsey Hopson that, pending the resolution of such suits as have already been filed or are likely to come, the Board still existed.

One interested party on hand was Superintendent Kriner Cash, freshly returned from a week’s vacation (which fueled speculation that he was putting out feelers, just in case). Cash seemed relieved to hear Hopson opine that the current MCS state of operations could continue for as long as eight years as litigation works its way toward resolution. (On the short side, Hopson said, it could be 60 days.)

Much of the council meeting was taken up with weighing the various alternatives before MCS — notably, whose version of the future, the city’s (with Wharton serving as a sort of executor for MCS), the county’s, the state’s, or SCS’s, would prevail. Hopson gave no definitive answer.

Oh, and there may be room for Wharton on the Norris-Todd commission, after all. MCS Board member introduced as new business for the board’s February 28 meeting a resolution obliging the Board to coordinate its own five appointees with the mayor.

MCS Board chairman Freda Williams and suprintendent Kriner Cash
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  • MCS Board chairman Freda Williams and suprintendent Kriner Cash

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