By Lawrence Buser, Jody Callahan, Jane Roberts, Memphis Commercial Appeal
January 14, 2011

The Memphis City Schools board voted 5-3 Thursday to convene a special meeting to consider a plan from Shelby County Schools that could lead to the MCS board rescinding its vote to surrender its charter.

At that meeting, which will be held next week, board members will discuss a proposal that includes an option for a countywide referendum on a schools merger in one year.

The compromise proposal offered by the county schools essentially requires both sides to take a 15-month timeout to plan together. If a proposal for school consolidation advances after that time, all voters in the county — not just the city — would have a say in the matter.

For that proposal to be accepted, however, the city board would have to rescind last month’s vote to surrender its charter and force a merger with county schools.

Board members Betty Mallott, Kenneth Whalum, Freda Williams, Jeff Warren and Sara Lewis voted in favor of setting the special meeting. Members Patrice Robinson, Martavius Jones and Stephanie Gatewood voted against. Board member Tomeka Hart was absent. The vote virtually mirrored that of the Dec. 20 meeting, where the board voted 5-4 to surrender its charter.

That original 5-4 vote to surrender the charter started the complex and intense discussion about school consolidation, a discussion that has already made its way to the courts and the state legislature.

Election officials announced earlier Thursday that the Shelby County Election Commission will set a date next Wednesday for a citywide referendum on transferring administration of the Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools.

Monice Hagler, an assistant county attorney representing the commission, said the referendum would be held within 45-60 days from Thursday. That decision was reached after state Election Coordinator Mark Goins gave the commission approval for the plan Thursday.

However, city school board attorney Dorsey Hopson said even if the Election Commission sets a date for that citywide vote, the Memphis school board could still vote to rescind its Dec. 20 vote to abandon the charter as long as it acts before the referendum itself is held.

“There is enough law that you can make an argument that you could rescind prior to the election,” Hopson said. “… I am not saying no one will challenge that.”

The announcement for a city vote was made in Chancery Court where Chancellor Walter Evans was prepared to hear arguments in a lawsuit filed Wednesday by Citizens for Better Education, a group seeking to force a referendum based on the city schools’ initial vote to surrender.

Their attorney, Allan Wade, told Evans of the out-of-court agreement that had been reached with the Election Commission and Hagler concurred.

“That’s acceptable to us, your honor,” Wade told the chancellor. “That will dispose of the matter.”

Hagler said Goins was satisfied that a valid referendum could be held after hearing from city school board attorney Michael Marshall that the only issue it wanted to put to voters was whether management and control of the Memphis City Schools board should be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education.

“In light of this clarification . . . the election may proceed with calling for and conducting a referendum on the transfer of administration without action from the Memphis City Council,” Goins said Thursday in a letter e-mailed to Richard Holden, administrator of elections for the Shelby County Election Commission.

Goins suggested the referendum question should read:

“Shall the Administration of the Memphis City School System, a special school district, be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?”

The city school board’s vote on Dec. 20 narrowly approved a two-pronged resolution, including the transfer of control to the county and the surrender and dissolution of the city schools’ charter.

The surrender issue falls under a separate state law that calls for approval by the Memphis City Council.

Wade, who also represents the council, said consolidation of the city and county schools could be accomplished either by that method or by referendum.

In Nashville Thursday, a bill by Sen. Mark Norris, which would give county voters a say in the transfer of MCS to SCS control, passed on the first of three readings. However, Norris said in a statement later Thursday that after learning of the possible agreement between MCS and SCS, “further legislative action this week seems unwarranted, therefore, in light of this positive development.”

He noted that while the impact of a lawsuit filed this week may be of more concern to the schools, it has no effect on the legislation.


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