By Bill Dries, Memphis Daily News
December 14, 2010

The Memphis City Schools (MCS) board is scheduled to vote Monday Dec. 20 on a charter surrender resolution.

The board approved the item for its agenda at a Monday evening meeting that included the first debate among the nine board members about the controversial response to possible special schools district legislation for Shelby County Schools.

After the debate, it was unclear whether the resolution had the five votes necessary to pass and put the question to Memphis voters in a March referendum. The resolution remained on the Dec. 20 agenda without a vote at Monday’s meeting.

Prior to the board meeting, Memphis City Council member Wanda Halbert chaired a public hearing among a group of 36 city and county elected officials, including but not limited to members of both public school boards.

During the two-and-a-half hour summit, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell suggested the Tennessee legislature consider a study resolution on the local schools standoff with each school system pledging to hold off on any action at least until the study committee completed its work. Study committees are a common practice the legislature uses on complex or controversial issues.

Luttrell said State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville has also suggested that the state comptroller’s office study the financial implications of a charter surrender and special school district status and report as part of the study committee that would include local leaders as well as state officials.

After the hearing, Luttrell said he and Wharton would continue working on the stand-down terms between now and the Dec. 20 meeting. He also admitted it would be hard to fashion an agreement that would absolutely prevent one side from moving ahead or legislators from another part of the state from proposing legislation to lift the 1982 ban on special school districts.

Meanwhile, Shelby County School board chairman David Pickler said he remains committed to not moving any special school districts legislation for county schools for now. Pickler said in the four weeks that he and Norris have vowed not to move legislation, there hasn’t been any extended dialogue with the MCS board toward resolving the standoff.

But several MCS board members said there would be no offer to talk had the board not considered the charter surrender resolution.

Those board members contend MCS would lose half its county tax base if county schools become a special school district. Pickler refutes that.

MCS board members also got a memo Monday from their attorney, Dorsey Hopson, outlining some scenarios should the board pass the surrender resolution and voters approve it at the polls. Many of them involve the possibility of litigation.

The moment the Election Commission certified the referendum results, the Memphis Board of Education would cease to exist. But there could be a court move to block certification of those results pending the outcome of a lawsuit similar to the one still pending that challenges the dual majorities vote this past Nov. on the metro consolidation charter.

The existing Shelby County Schools board would remain in place during a transition the details of which would be worked out after the charter surrender and involve state laws governing a restructuring of what is now an elected body that represents districts in Shelby County outside Memphis.

The Shelby County Schools board wouldn’t be blocked from pushing for special school district legislation, a private act creating their own special school district and trying to carry it out post MCS charter surrender. But Hopson said it would probably wind up in litigation because it would create “a whole new set of legal arguments.”

MCS could also move for the charter surrender referendum after special school district status was established but it would probably face the same kind of court consequences.

Teachers in both systems would retain their tenure and jobs initially. Salaries between the two groups of teachers would have to be leveled up, meaning they could not go down. He also said generally that there would be some costs associated with a consolidated school district.

Funding for school reform from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $90 million over six years, is under terms of a contract and that contract is with MCS. But Hopson said there would be nothing to stop the foundation from pursuing a continuance of the agreement with a new countywide school system.

The MCS share of $500 million in federal Race to the Top education reform funding to the state of Tennessee is part of an agreement between the federal government and the state of Tennessee.

All of the Memphis city school system’s property would be transferred to the Shelby County Schools system and Hopson predicted there would be “immediate pressure” to renovate older buildings, most of them in the former MCS system, to avoid lawsuits over disparities in the united school system.

Hopson said other variables involving legal action were harder to predict. “What I can’t tell you is who’s going to sue,” he said.

The school board’s discussion dominated a non-voting meeting at which Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash had planned to roll out a list of recommended school closings he has called a “right-sizing” plan. Before the board began its charter surrender debate, Cash announced he would not pursue any recommendations on school facilities for the rest of the school year.

Read more in Wednesday’s edition of The Daily News and for the backstory of the schools standoff see our co-cover story in the current edition of our weekly newspaper, The Memphis News.

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