Politics » Politics Feature

A Two-Front War

Conflict between Memphis and its suburbs flares up again over annexation and the schools.



We ain't seen nothing yet.

Concomitant with this week's surprise move by state senator Mark Norris and state representative Curry Todd, both of Collierville, to co-opt Memphis' agreed-upon annexation reserve on behalf of the suburbs and the city's hurry-up response to annex the Gray's Creek area, was another ticking time bomb.

This one was courtesy of former longtime Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler, a key member now of both the interim Unified School Board and the Transition Planning Commission established to guide city/county school merger.

In a weekend interview with the Flyer, Pickler confided his intent to persuade his fellow TPC members to reconstrue their mission so as to incorporate the concept of multiple school districts.

Said Pickler: "They need to understand that, whereas the opinion heretofore on the committee has been that they believe their charge is only to develop a plan for the entire district, I think that what Senator Norris has put before us and what the municipal communities are moving toward is going to impose a new reality on the commission and its charge."

Accordingly, Pickler announced his intention to address this Thursday's meeting of the TPC by conference call from Washington, where he would be in his role as president-elect of the National School Board Association. He would ask his colleagues to entertain a visit from Jim Mitchell, the former SCS superintendent who now heads Southern Educational Strategies, the consultant group which is advising Memphis' municipal suburbs on the likely formation of their own school systems.

This constitutes a return to form, of a sort. It was Pickler's enthusiasm for a special suburban school district in late 2010 that was cited by Memphis City Schools board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart as the reason for their push toward surrender of the MCS charter, a move that forced the now ongoing merger of MCS with SCS.

For the last several months, however, Pickler's rhetoric has been studiously neutral and generally supportive of the efforts of the unified board and the Transition Planning Commission to move toward the new era of city/county merger.

No more. Or at least no longer in so single-minded a fashion.

Pickler expressed support for the efforts of suburban leaders (a fair number of whom belong to either the unified board or the TPC): "I absolutely do believe it's up to each of the suburban leaders to do exactly what they have done, to do their due diligence, to conduct the feasibility studies, and to determine whether or not an administrative district is legally, academically, and fiscally feasible.

"They've done that work, and, while some may disagree with some aspects of their feasibility study, they're moving well down the track toward a referendum in May and doing the things that they regard as appropriate."

In addition to the six or so potential municipal school districts that could be formed under the rubric of the original Norris-Todd bill, passed a year ago, other components of a "new reality" mentioned by Pickler include the possibility of as many as 65 underperforming Memphis schools coming under the administration of the new state Achievement School District and "anywhere from 27 to 44" new charter schools.

Pickler, who co-chairs the TPC's administrative governance committee (along with former opposite number Jones), said his committee investigated at least 20 different school districts in the nation, involving urban areas like New Orleans, Chicago, and Denver, and found a multitude of different approaches to administering similar realities.

"I think what we're going to have to do with the Transition Planning Committee is understand and embrace these new realities. And I think we need to come up with at least one or more alternatives, because I don't think we can just go out there and say, 'We're going to develop a design for 150,000 schoolchildren' when, in fact, by August 2013 there may not be that many to start with."

Add the fact, Pickler said, that Norris has vowed to follow through with defining legislation, if the city and county cannot agree on the terms, fiscal and otherwise, under which new municipal school districts might acquire school infrastructure which is now the property of the county at large. According to Pickler:

"The Transition Planning Commission has to take under consideration this new initiative by Senator Norris. If we ignore it, Norris seems to have a plan to implement."

Resolving these and other issues "is going to be fun," Norris said, with perhaps a shade of irony. "We live in interesting times."   • All of this was on top of the related crisis regarding Memphis' annexation reserve, which seemingly came out of nowhere this week.

In an uncanny echo of the situation a year ago, when city of Memphis officials, threatened with state action to overpower local options on school merger, unified in opposition, Mayor A C Wharton and the city council stood ready to expedite the emergency annexation of the still unincorporated Gray's Creek suburban area.

The action, beginning with consideration by committee on Tuesday, was in response to two new bills introduced by Messrs. Norris and Todd, co-sponsors of last year's Norris-Todd bill on the schools. The new bill would effectively curtail Memphis' powers of annexation. One measure would require a referendum of affected residents in a proposed annexation area, and another would specifically remove Gray's Creek from Memphis' assigned annexation areas.

Foreseeing the quick passage of the council annexation ordinance, Councilman Jim Strickland said, "I hope the people in the suburbs who think their interests are being served by the bills proposed up there realize that this annexation is being forced not by Memphis but by Nashville." Strickland saw the ongoing efforts toward creating suburban school districts as the motivating factor for the proposed legislation.

"They don't have enough students to pay for the school districts they're trying to set up, so they're going to try out and annex some more students," said Strickland, who opines that the proposed legislation in Nashville will be found unconstitutional, even should it win a race with the council and get their bills passed before the council can act on annexation.

Memphis and the county's suburban municipalities had reached formal agreement on their respective annexation areas in 1998 as a result of the then volatile dispute over "Toy Town" legislation that, before being declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, would have hemmed Memphis in with a flood of newly incorporated "cities."

Councilman Shea Flinn, who learned of the proposed legislation upon arriving back in Memphis Monday after being out of town, noted, "This should put an end to all those protestations from Republicans that they believe in local government." Flinn said last year's legislative session and this one so far have made it obvious that the GOP-dominated state government will run roughshod over local interests whenever it chooses.

Council chairman Bill Morrison and Mayor Wharton issued a joint press release Monday that said in part:

"These proposals, put forth without even a courtesy call to local government, single out the city of Memphis at a time when other municipalities have recently used the ... 1998 agreement — without argument or interference — to annex their reserve areas. It's a move that smacks of racism, classism, and schoolyard bullying.

"Last year, we saw these same legislators try to leapfrog over the will of our citizens to surrender the charter of Memphis City Schools and to establish a unified Shelby County school system.

"This is a continued all-out assault on Memphis and its right to govern itself. We are calling upon all of our local leaders — whether they be leaders in politics, business, or the philanthropic arena — and the residents of Memphis to let their state representatives know that this will not stand. If need be, we will meet this challenge in court."

Morrison, who posited the goal of getting at new sales tax revenue for the suburban districts as yet another reason for the proposed state legislation, said at first he thought it might be hypothetically possible to hold the required three readings of the Gray's Creek annexation ordinance within a single week. Upon checking on procedure, he modified that estimate.

"We can do it from beginning to end in 15 days, and that includes the required plans of service," he said.

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