Making his strongest statements yet on the subject of the forthcoming citywide vote on surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter, Mayor A C Wharton used words like “detest” and “contemptible” in expressing his opposition to pending state legislation aimed at curbing Memphians’ sole right to decide the issue.
Meeting with reporters after delivering his formal State of the City address to an overflow audience in the lobby of LeBonheur Children’s Hospital, Wharton said, “Anything that gets in the way of the vote, I am just unalterably opposed to that…The right to vote is o dear to this city. People marched, people went to jail, and some died across this country. Once that train leaves the station, once you tell the people they’re going to have the right to vote on something, he or she who gets in the way of that acts with great peril. I detest that — any bill, any law, any device, anything that gets in the way of the right to vote.”
Continuing, the mayor said, “Ultimately it should be decided by the people, and absolutely nothing should get in the way of that. When the Memphis City Schools said, let’s let the folks vote on it, that is the law. Now, it is not going to go down well to changes the rules in mid-stream. That’s going to be hard to explain as to why a law that has served 94 counties well for some reason is not a good law for the 95th county. That’s going to be very difficult to explain.”
Asked if he was defending the Memphis-only aspect of the March 8 referendum, Wharton said, “That is correct…That, by the way, was not something that the folks of MCS came up with…That’s been on the books for many many decades…It’s worked fine, and it would be contemptible to change it at this stage.”
Wharton promised that at some future point before the referendum, he would offer some guidance. “I do have an opinion, and that opinion will be expressed clearly before the vote.”
In addressing the subject during his State of the City remarks previously, Wharton had said, “Memphians must have their say in their children’s future, and when early voting starts on February 16, you must take the lead in having your voice heard.” He said he intended to bring in “experts” in the process of consolidation” to insure that if it is the will of the voters, it can be done….. These are the moments that rewrite our city’s history.”
The key elements of any transition would be to make sure “that the education of no child will be disrupted because of the transition and that we will not jeopardize the resources from the Gates Foundation or The Race to the Top,” Wharton said.
In the conversation with reporters, the mayor pointed out that, during the course of his travels to and from Paris for a conference this week, he had talked with Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash by telephone about the $57 million still owed by city government to MCS. The matter had not been dropped, Wharton said. “It would be so hypocritical to profess to care so much about the schools and then say, ‘I’m not gonna pay that money’” It’s just a matter of getting back together.”
UPDATE: Not long after Mayor Wharton had made his statements in Memphis, state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) was quoted in Nashville by The Commercial Appeal’s Rick Locker as saying he intended to try to facilitate legislation blocking attempts to merge the Memphis and Shelby County school systems “for a year or something.”
Simultaneously, Senate Republican leaders scheduled meetings of the Senate Finance and Education committes for next Wednesday so as to vet bills designed to counter MCS-SCS merger and fast-track them for immediate floor action when the legislature reconvenes on Monday, February 7.
That would include a bill by state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville that would call for a delayed referendum and one that would require dual voting by city and county residents, as well as a measure proposed by state Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown to enable the state to take over MCS schools (as “non-performing” schools) in the event of a positive merger vote on March 8.