By Zack McMillin, Jane Roberts, Memphis Commercial Appeal
January 19, 2011

The Shelby County Election Commission voted Wednesday afternoon to put a March 8 referendum before Memphis voters on whether to dissolve Memphis City Schools.

Early voting will begin Feb. 16 at the commission’s headquarters Downtown, and expand to 16 satellite sites throughout the city from Feb. 19-March 3. The massive undertaking comes under very short notice for the commission, which expects an enormous turnout.

“What you are talking about is 1,000 election officials to be trained, to be hired, to be employed and the distribution of approximately 1,000 voting machines to 187 polling sites across the city,” said administrator of elections Richard Holden. “And that’s not even talking about early voting.”

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and City Council chairman Myron Lowery used social media to trumpet the news and urged people to spread the word.

Commission chairman Bill Giannini defended the process, which had been delayed when state coordinator of elections Mark Goins ruled two weeks ago that surrendering the MCS charter required a resolution of approval from the City Council, as well.

“The only thing we were concerned with, ever, was if we administered an election that was tried in court, we would be able to defend the actions of this body,” Giannini said. “That was the reason for the questions of the coordinator.”

Last week Goins notified the Election Commission it could set the election after receiving guidance from an attorney representing MCS that the board’s Dec. 22 notification requesting a referendum was specifically referred to transferring administrative control to Shelby County Schools — not surrendering the charter.

“Shall the management and control of the Memphis City School System be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?” is how Atty. Mike Marshall suggested the commission word the measure.

The commission chose March 8 because it coincides with the State House Dist. 98 election and falls within the mandated 45-60 day window that began last week when the commission came to an agreement with local citizens who had filed a lawsuit. Had the commission been forced to adhere to the school board’s original Dec. 22 notification, the election likely would have been held on Feb. 17 — with early voting beginning Jan. 29.

The election is estimated to cost $950,000, paid for out of MCS funds. Giannini said holding it with the state election will save local taxpayers $50,000 “and it’s money the state has to spend regardless.”

Giannini indicated he anticipates possible legal challenges, perhaps as soon as this week. He also said even if MCS mustered the six votes needed to rescind its action, it would require a judge to stop it.

And Giannini emphasized that a state attorney general opinion makes it clear only city voters can participate.

“The date is now set,” he said. “This body has performed its official responsibility. At this point the only way to stop this is by court order.”

Later Wednesday evening, more than 200 people turned out for the Stand for Children forum between people for and against surrender of the city school charter.

Panelists were MCS board member Martavius Jones and County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, for surrender; and SCS board chairman David Pickler and Rev. Dwight Montgomery against.

In an impromptu poll afterward, only two people — including Pickler — said they would vote against the consolidation.

“Our urgency for surrendering the charter was to prevent any school district Memphians have contributed to from getting special district status,” Jones said. “We felt our strategy would prevent that. It is a county system; Memphis is part of Shelby County. It belongs to us too.”

Pickler said merging the districts would cost more money to bring county school per-pupil spending up to the level of city schools. “Understand this folks, if we talk about unity and funding, Memphis City students receive $10,400 (per pupil). Shelby County receives funding $2,300 less.”

“It doesn’t,” Jones shot back, in the first of his short answers that drew applause from the crowd. Jones said the money is based on the students’ needs and wouldn’t change if the systems were merged.

When asked why Memphis children don’t deserve teachers as talented as those in county schools, Montgomery said, “I have a problem with the fact that it is implied that the teachers in Memphis City Schools are not providing superior education for children. I have a problem with that. We have superior teachers in Memphis. They are just as fine as any district in the nation.”

Pickler and Commissioner Mulroy sparred over how a unified board would be appointed. Mulroy said the county attorney has advised that the County Commission would be responsible for appointing an interim board that fully represented Memphians.

But Pickler said the county attorney was not the final opinion.

“The answer to all scare tactics is a unified school district that would adequately represent Memphians,” Mulroy said. “No reason to see a unified district board doing the slash and burn strategy and dispensing with everything that works in Memphis City Schools,” Mulroy said, including charter schools and optional schools.

Pickler said SCS does not believe in optional schools, describing how its schools are based on individual centers of excellence and that he would be pushing for more International Baccalaureate programs.

“Sounds like optional schools to me,” Jones said to applause.


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