Toward the end of an Education Committee discussion Wednesday about a back-up redistricting plan for what will ultimately be a new all-county unified school board, Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks observed, “We’re having the same debate that we’ve had for the last three weeks. We just need to move forward.”
It was hard to dispute the commissioner’s observation about the fact of redundancy.
Wednesday’s committee session concerned whether or not the commission, which had previously approved a provisional 25-member school board, should also prepare a contingency plan for a reapportioned board of seven (the same number as the current Shelby County Schools board) in case the courts should require one.
But the discussion Wednesday had less to do with that legal possibility than with the continuing reluctance of a commission minority to endorse a plan that might conflict with the Norris-Todd bill, recently enacted by the state legislature.
As Wyatt Bunker, one of three representatives from District 4, which serves the outer county, put it, “We’re throwing bunch of stuff on the wall and seeing what sticks…It’s like elementary school….It seems like desperate grasps at trying to redistrict, trying to gain power, when we know that there’s a law in place….” That view was repeated, with variations, by Terry Roland, another District 4 commissioner, and by Heidi Shafer, whose District 1 constituency contains an overlap of city and suburban populations.
Mike Ritz, who also represents District 1, contended that commission’s proceeding with a transition plan, including provisions for new school board districts, is in no “inherent conflict” with Norris-Todd, though he argued that the later “was prepared to stall the merger of the two school systems” and to open up the possibility of new suburban special districts at the end of its prescribed 2 ½-year planning period.
Shafer’s tack was that there was indeed an inherent conflict, that the commission’s action and those prescribed by Norris-Todd “can’t exist in the same sphere,” and that if the commission just waited until a legal ruling could clarify the matter. Otherwise, the commission would be doing “twice as much work” needlessly.
“We can walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s better for us to have a [contingency] plan and not need one than to need a plan and not have one,” countered District 5 commissioner Steve Mulroy. And committee chairman Walter Bailey pointed out that a lengthy appellate process would follow in the wake of any forthcoming legal judgment. “We need to have positions in place. Otherwise we’ll just be at a standstill,” Bailey said.
As has often been the case in debates on the matter of the commission’s involvement in moving forward with a merger plan, Roland insisted on having the last word: “This is a back door deal,” he maintained, an attempt by consolidation advocates to achieve an end “they couldn’t win that the ballot box.”
Roland wondered: “How come, if you are fighting for something in Memphis, you’re an activist, but if you’re fighting for something outside in the county, you’re considered a racist? ...We’re not all white. We will fight this to the bitter end, tooth and nail.”
At the end of the committee hearing Wednesday, the backup plan passed by an 8 -2-1 — Bunker and Roland voting no, Shafer abstaining.
“We can agree to disagree. Let the courts decide,” said District 3 member Sidney Chism, the current commission chairman, who has pushed for expedited action on creating a unified school board under commission auspices. He told reporters after the meeting that the commission would keep to its schedule, which includes interviews with prospective members of a 25-member interim School Board on Wednesday, March 23, with appointments made on Monday, March 28.