Politics » Politics Feature

Still the Big Story

“I just can’t run all over Memphis,” says Sara Lewis of a plethora of school-crisis meetings.



"I'm not going to throw anybody under the bus," said Memphis Education Association president Keith Williams during remarks made to the Memphis City School Board Monday night.

But, as it turned out, a place under the bus might have provided good shelter from the verbal salvoes that Williams, a determined opponent of MCS charter surrender, would go on to direct toward board members or to "those of you who were bound and determined to force this issue."

Professing himself "deeply distressed," Williams excoriated the board for its "rush to abandon ... an urban school district poised for greatness." In "the high drama recently created by this board," in its "shortsightedness," its "focus ... on power and revenge ... hatred and fear," the board had "undermined the superintendent and his total administration" and all in the name of "power," Williams said.

He concluded by likening the targeted members to Shakespeare's version of the famously ambitious Julius Caesar and both Lord and Lady MacBeth and with a quotation from Lord Acton (which he mistakenly attributed to Machiavelli): "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Okay. But what if Williams, an English teacher in the MCS system, had spoken his unvarnished feelings?

Which is to say, the Big Story is still the dilemma and controversy over a pending March 8th citywide referendum on the charter surrender, as well as on likely efforts to thrwart de facto school-system consolidation by legislators sympathetic to the cause of Shelby County Schools.

Headlining a plethora of meetings, forums, colloquies, and what-have-you on the ever-simmering subject of the schools were three public debates scheduled for this week, two of them televised.

On WREG-TV, News Channel 3, there was a Tuesday night encounter featuring two opposed teams: MCS board member Martavius Jones, state representative G.A. Hardaway, and city councilman Shea Flinn for charter surrender and Shelby County Schools chairman David Pickler, the Rev. La Simba Gray, and Germantown mayor Sharon Goldsworthy opposed.

On Wednesday night, on WMC-TV Channel 5, Pickler and MCS board member Tomeka Hart were paired up, taking the anti- and pro- sides, respectively, on charter surrender.

And on Thursday, a town hall meeting at Snowden School was to feature Shelby County commissioner Melvin Burgess, City Council member Jim Strickland, and MCS board member Jeff Warren in an exchange on the charter-surrender and special-school-district issues.

The number of such meetings is proliferating, to the point that outspoken MCS board member Sara Lewis, addressing a proposed series of joint MCS-Memphis City Council meetings, was moved to expostulate: "I'm Sara, and I'm just going to be very, very blunt about what I'm going to do and what I'm not going to do. I just can't run all over Memphis."

Lewis did weigh in for some sort of "structured meeting and civil exchange" with the council, but she and other members of the MCS board expressed themselves as wary of initiatives from the council or the Shelby County Commission or SCS or wherever — at least until the board was able to develop a coherent approach of its own.

MCS board member Patrice Robinson underscored the point: "We need [to develop] a common, single message, and we need to do it yesterday."

There is still division on the board, of course. Reservations to the charter-surrender concept are still actively held by Lewis, Warren, board chairman Freda Williams, and Kenneth Whalum. • If at first you don't succeed ... Well, if you're board member Warren, you keep trying, Charlie Brown-like, even long past a time when everybody else has lost count of your previous efforts and even after some of your fellow board members have lost patience with you altogether.

Warren has been conspicuously looking for the golden mean of compromise from the very beginning of the current crisis, which began with the MCS board's anxiety over the prospect of special-school-district status for Shelby County Schools and has now entered a phase in which the anxiety is on the county side concerning the eminent forced consolidation of the two school systems.

In the minds of many supporters of the MCS charter surrender referendum, Warren's several proposals up until this week had seemed either too favorable to county interests or too incapable of bridging the gap between MCS and SCS.

At a recent MCS "work session," board colleague Stephanie Gatewood chided Warren for his many solo efforts to bridge the gap between the two systems. "This is the fourth time you've tried to recreate, revise, or re-edit," she told him, pointing out that so far neither of the contending boards had signed on to one of his plans.

For the record, Warren now has a new plan — his fifth, it would seem — which he put forth to the MCS board Tuesday night. Like the last one, this one contemplates a variant of a previous plan which had emanated from the SCS board but was rejected by a majority of MCS board members.

Warren acknowledged the affinities between his new plan and the SCS precursor, including the hiring of an expert "in school governance," the appointment of two parallel slates of parents, administrators, and other citizens by the two boards to create a common "team," and the preparation of a referendum.

But there were "a number of changes," as Warren said Monday night. Instead of the several alternative possibilities that might have been recommended under the SCS plan, Warren's comes with a specific recommendation — for the model he presented last week, a consolidated district broken down into five sub-districts governed by a chancellor. Referendum language to that end would be agreed on "no later than July 1, 2012."

And the most significant alteration in previous formulas — his own and that of the SCS alike — is that Warren's new plan would proceed regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming citywide referendum on MCS charter surrender, scheduled for March 8th, or whatever counter-legislation might emerge from the General Assembly, including creation of a special school district for Shelby County Schools.

As before, the vote on Warren's contemplated referendum would be countywide. But the kicker is that if the referendum should fail, "Shelby County Schools will assume control of Memphis City Schools."

That provision might assure Warren of a friendlier hearing than any of his previous plans. As "new business" Monday night, it won't be discussed for action until the board's next regular meeting, but it may already have been overtaken by events.

The newest development is a plan said to be under active discussion by representatives of several of the county municipalities, sidestepping the either-or alternatives of consolidation and special-school-district status with a new formulation that is essentially a special school district by another name. That would be the creation of a network of municipally operated school systems.

This alternative is under active consideration in Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, and Arlington — though, since it would be supported by new tax levies, it might prove too burdensome for other suburban municipalities. And unincorporated portions of Shelby County would apparently be left outside the structure (though fee-based loopholes might be created allowing residents access to a given municipal system).

Legislative sanction would be needed for such a plan, as for special school districts, and one of the unanswered questions is whether currently existing school buildings and other infrastructure are the rightful property of the county or the state and whether they would need to be purchased.

If outright consolidation of the school systems should occur, a consensus is building toward some variation of the five-sub-district formula like that proposed by Warren.

Even state senator Mark Norris, the GOP majority leader of the state Senate and the author of legislation designed to avert the consequences of an MCS charter surrender, has expressed himself as being open-minded to some such formula.

And Pickler, whose call for new special-school-district legislation was the catalyst for the current crisis, has said that such an outcome would be preferable to other consolidation formats.

Antonio "Two-Shay" Parkinson, the Frayser/Raleigh activist and firefighter, got his ticket punched to Nashville on Monday, as the Shelby County Commission unanimously approved him as an interim appointee to fill the District 98 state House seat that has been vacant since the death last November of long-term incumbent Ulysses Jones.

Parkinson was the winner in this week's special Democratic primary in District 98. The commission decided last month it would appoint the winner since there was no Republican in the race, and Parkinson now faces only a possible write-in opponent in the special general election.

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