Politics » Politics Feature

Collision Course

Officials grope for power and perspective as the school showdown looms dead ahead.



Though Monday afternoon's hastily arranged "summit" of local political and school officials on the showdown between the Memphis and Shelby County school systems did not resolve disputed matters nor avert the continuing prospect of Armageddon, it did illuminate some of the power realities.

As it happens, Memphis mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell are still in the early stages of exploring the nature of their own relationship — or partnership, as the case may be.

Both temporizing and conciliatory types by nature, they offered the hope, on behalf of their respective (and overlapping) jurisdictions, that no action would go forward without protracted consultation and study — neither the creation of a special county school district nor de facto school consolidation via the surrender of the Memphis School Board's charter.

Appropriately, perhaps, it was Luttrell, who heads what he acknowledges is a "weak-mayor" system and who believes he can best make progress by developing good relations with other officials, who unveiled a specific plan: holding things in place for a year and meanwhile asking the state comptroller's office to evaluate both proposals.

It surely said something that Memphis City Schools' Kriner Cash said nothing. Cash, who has previously indicated to his board members that he opposed the idea of city schools surrendering its charter, has apparently decided that discretion not only is the better part of valor but that silence is the better part of discretion.

The last thing he wants to do is reinforce the impression left by Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, who made the culminating speech at the Monday afternoon summit. 

"You better start thinking about what's right for your kids and not for yourself politically! You better do what's right for your kids," Chism thundered.

He went on for a while about the fact that power had shifted after this year's elections and that the new Republican masters of the state legislature would likely take the attitude "We're going to make some major changes, whether you like it or not!" And those changes, he said, could result in the gutting of support for a Memphis school system and leave it facing possible fiscal isolation with a truncated tax base.

Toward the end of his remarks, Chism turned slightly to his left and gestured in the direction of the seated panelists, eye-checking both MCS board president Freda Williams, a declared opponent of the charter surrender, and Cash:

"When this thing first came up, I said to my wife, 'It will never happen, because politically they don't want to give up no power they got, and they got about that much!"

Chism here held his thumb and forefinger the merest part of an inch apart. "And they don't want to lose it. And yet the kids will suffer from now on because you think you got a position that you gotta hold to make somebody think you're doing something in this town! You better do what's right for these babies."

For their part, perennial Shelby County School Board president David Pickler and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken were at pains to seem as reasonable and undemanding as possible. After all, either outcome would aggrandize their own power: The special school district would further what, for Pickler and many of his board colleagues, has been a long-held dream; and the de facto combining of districts would place Pickler and Aitken at the head of the consolidated whole (though, to be sure, only temporarily).

Welcoming the involvement of the two mayors and the other officials, Pickler, who has relentlessly pushed the idea of a special school district for at least a decade, described Monday's colloquy as "a conversation we've been wanting to have for 10 years" and offered "to take the time if necessary to address any and all questions" — a pledge that clearly covered a longer span than Monday's session, since, as MCS board members Martavius Jones, Tomeka Hart, and others noted, he never quite addressed the basic question: Why does the county system want to be separate in the first place?

Pickler did his best to convince the city-side contingent that the special school district need not be an immediate threat — that something like the year-long cooling-off period suggested by Luttrell was indeed possible. "We've asked the legislative leaders not to take any action," he said, going on to outline the steps required to accomplish a special school district — legislative action to remove a 1982 state prohibition against new districts, followed by a private act which Pickler, threading a verbal needle, said "by custom, not by law, requires the consent of each member of the Shelby County delegation."

Aitken, installed as county schools superintendent only during the last year, was diffidence itself, urging the various parties  to "step back and be careful" and declaring his need to "do a little homework myself."

Pickler's nicety on the matter of unanimous delegation consent did not escape the notice of state representative G.A. Hardaway, the Memphis Democrat who currently serves as chair of the Shelby County legislative delegation. Hardaway, like Chism, sides with the MCS board's hard-liners — led by Jones and Hart — both of whom will be moving for a charter surrender when the board meets next Monday night to decide that issue.

Hardaway declared point-blank his skepticism on the matter of "trust." He would bluntly tell the attendees that enabling legislation for a special Shelby County school district had been introduced in the state House during the last session without the delegation's unanimous consent, "was defeated by only one vote," and that, despite Luttrell's urging and Pickler's soothing intimations of a gradual, time-consuming process, the entire act could be accomplished, from beginning to end, in a single day. "We do a lot of bills that way at the end of a session," he noted.

In a further effort to mollify critics, Pickler had suggested that the current A.D.A. (average daily attendance) formula which mandates a 3:1 ratio favoring MCS in capital expenditures might be continued after creation of a special school district. This, too, generated as much doubt as agreement.

Although the lineaments of the showdown between the two school systems seemed starkly outlined, there was still some middle ground — much of it mined with complexities. MCS board member Jeff Warren, a physician who represents a Midtown district and is a moderate's moderate, was as distrustful of the county contingent — and the GOP legislature — as Jones and Hart, insisting on a "legally binding" guarantee that no special-school-district legislation would go forward in the coming session.

What that came down to in practice he outlined in a special "work session" of the board Monday evening that followed the summit meeting. Keeping, as he said, to the Cold War rhetoric that has characterized the two boards' mounting conflict — replete with talk of "nuclear" options — Warren embroidered on the old phrase "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD), a concept that kept the United States and the Soviet Union, both nuclear-armed to the teeth, peacefully stalemated.

Warren wondered: Why not a Mutually Assured Defense agreement between city schools and county schools — one that involved long-term guarantees that neither side would invoke its nuclear strike without allowing the other side to do the same? In other words, as soon as the county board moved for a special school district, the city board would be permitted to join it. Conversely, if the city board should move to surrender its charter, machinery would be in place to permit immediate legislation on behalf of a special county school district.

Legalistically speaking, Warren's scenario seemed, to put it mildly, a ram in a thicket.

Other, equally complex issues had abounded in the summit discussion. City council member Jim Strickland, for example, wanted clarification on what might happen if MCS ceased to exist as such to the $70-odd-million provided annually to city schools by the city council under a judicially mandated "maintenance-of-effort" formula? And what would be the fate of a pending $90 million grant to the city school system by the Gates Foundation?

Neither question was satisfactorily dealt with in either the summit session or the subsequent MCS board meeting, though Jones hazarded the hopeful guess that the Gates grant had been promised to a set of teacher-effectiveness initiatives rather than to MCS per se.

Another question was: Who would control the tax rate for a special school district — the county commission, the legislature, or the county school board? No consensus was reached on that one, either — nor on a myriad of other perplexities, all of which lurked under the surface of the discussion.

With a "town meeting" on the respective issues coming Friday and the MCS board's showdown on charter surrender coming Monday, much remained unresolved. Indeed, the appropriate metaphor might be not a nuclear showdown but the Titanic's encounter with a dimly glimpsed iceberg, the consequences of which could not be foreseen in advance.

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