Politics » Politics Feature

Alignment … and Chaos

There was a brief moment of concord amid a worsening discord on the schools.



Against all odds, Monday of this week was a day of relative solidarity — a coming together after a tense several weeks of the various strands that make up the community of greater Memphis and connect it, after all, to the state of Tennessee.

The day — and the week — got started with a show of Kumbaya in the Skyway of the Peabody, under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce.

The occasion was the announcement of a new Mitsubishi plant-to-be in a ceremony that brought together such figures as the Grizzlies' Rudy Gay, Governor Bill Haslam, venerable former U.S. senator Howard Baker, Mayors A C Wharton and Mark Luttrell, and state Senate majority leader Mark Norris, principal author of the currently controversial Norris-Todd bill on school-system consolidation.

Other attendees were chairmen Myron Lowery of the Memphis City Council and Sidney Chism of the Shelby County Commission, and present throughout the densely packed crowd was a Who's Who of other governmental and business leaders. It was like one of those vintage group portraits showing the crowned heads of Europe all in their finest regalia, sitting elbow to elbow in formal unity on the eve of the First World War.

The sense of harmony was not only spoken to by the governor, the mayors, and the other participants at the Mitsubishi announcement, it survived that event, at least for a brief spell.

Set upon by the press after the proceedings at the Peabody, Haslam insisted, "Mayor Wharton and I have a great relationship. We talk probably every day on the phone. ... There's not a bit of tension. I think there's really a great partnership there."

Wharton, who had conspicuously been denied the right of making appointments to the planning commission on school consolidation in the Norris-Todd bill which Haslam had signed last week, would second that.

He and Luttrell briefly appeared together at the day's public meeting of the county commission to stress, in Wharton's words, that for all the current disagreement over the school situation "there are many more issues on which there will be no division" and that "when it comes to moving us forward, we can speak with one voice."

Luttrell told the commissioners that he considered himself a "bridge" of sorts between city and county. "I don't want to see a gap between urban and suburban interests grow even wider." And he expressed hope that "the 11th hour ... will find our community together and looking forward to a beautiful future."

The acquisition of a new plant — a project on which the governor and other state officers had indeed collaborated with the two mayors and other local officials — will work wonders toward generating a sense of unity.

And even though Haslam and Wharton were technically on opposite sides on the issue of the Norris-Todd bill, it was apparent that there had been some modest attempt to split the middle.

Asked why he had signed the bill on Friday morning, a day after the Memphis City Council had cast a unanimous vote to accept the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter, Haslam had this to say:

"Well, Mayor Wharton had called and said, 'I'd like you to wait and see what they do.' But the main thing was, quite frankly, I got up one morning, wanted to read it one more time that night in the privacy of my own study to make certain I read that, and when I got back the next day, signed it."

And the governor made another concession to Wharton. Regarding the one appointee to the planning commission which Norris-Todd empowers him to make, Haslam said, "I haven't decided who that will be. I'll talk with Mayor Wharton about that. I want to make certain we have someone who represents kind of the core of Memphis, if you will."

Haslam repeated his two main reservations about Norris-Todd. The bill's mandated two-and-half-year delay of a possible merger of MCS with Shelby County Schools was "a long time to leave kids in limbo, a long time to leave teachers in limbo, and maintenance personnel."

And he continued to sound lukewarm about the bill's ultimate provision — that, after a yes vote on merger by the residents of Memphis, after the lengthy delay in effecting it, the existing state ban on new municipal or special school districts would be lifted, allowing the suburbs to wall themselves off, after all.

"Before we start talking about special school districts, it's very important that everybody put their best-faith efforts into making this transition and unification work," the governor said. "Here's what I honestly feel: This could be a great opportunity for schoolkids in Memphis and Shelby County. Look to see what the state can do to help."

So far, so good. But there had been gaps in the dialogue. 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 party-line votes in the Senate and House, there had been an understanding locally that Wharton would be interceding with Haslam in order to soften 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.

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 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 8th 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 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 job 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.

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