By Sherri Drake Silence, Memphis Commercial Appeal
March 8, 2011

The resounding “yes” vote on the schools referendum kick-starts a new law requiring a 21/2 -year transition.

But many oppose the plan, there’s no timeline for carrying it out and it will almost certainly be mired in the ongoing scramble for control by city and county officials, school leaders and legislators.

People on both sides of the issue agree that ultimately, multiple judges will decide when or whether to consolidate Memphis City and Shelby County schools. Tuesday’s vote will likely set off a new round of court challenges, in addition to lawsuits that have already been filed.

Meanwhile, the administrations of both systems will continue operating independently, preparing budgets and getting students ready for the state’s high-stakes achievement tests next month.

“As this thing goes on, there’s more and more twists,” said SCS Supt. John Aitken. “Right now, we’re just trying to have school. … It’s imperative on me to keep the focus on instruction.”

Shelby County Commission members are aiming to quickly appoint a 25-member unified school board that would govern immediately even if the systems merge later. Commissioner Mike Ritz said at least five current MCS board members may seek seats on the new board. MCS board member Martavius Jones has already applied.

“If they apply, I think they have a good chance of being appointed,” Ritz said.

SCS is suing the commission on the matter.

Ritz said Tuesday’s vote will likely be certified by election officials no later than March 28, but someone may take legal action to stop the vote from being certified.

The commission plans to appoint board members on March 28. There’s a chance that two county school boards and the city school board could all hold meetings this year.

“I see us really staying in place until the county commission acts,” Jones said of the MCS board. “… During this time, we will be working on some type of course of transition. As far as a timeline for the actual transition, it’s anybody’s guess.”

Any effort or action dealing with the merger that seems to be definite is almost always followed by a “but.”

Much of the confusion surrounds how state laws and private acts on consolidation are interpreted and which ones have the final authority.

The new state law, pushed by Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and others, delays any merger until the 2013-14 school year and calls for the appointment of a 21-member transition planning commission. But the law is expected to be challenged by Memphis leaders who were left out of the process.

The law is specific about who makes appointments to the transition team, but says nothing about when that has to happen.

The chairmen of both the city and county school boards and the county mayor — but not the city mayor — will be members and each of them will appoint five more members. However, some MCS board members recently moved to usurp the appointment power of board president Freda Williams — who voted against the Dec. 20 charter surrender — by making the appointments an action of the full board.

The governor and the speakers of the state Senate and House will jointly appoint three more members.

The transition team then is supposed to submit a consolidation plan to the state, addressing things such as teachers’ rights and employee retirement benefits, but there’s no time frame for that, either.

Asked how quickly the appointments should be made, Norris said: “Right away I hope.”

In the next week, SCS board chairman David Pickler said he plans to talk with others who will make appointments about setting up a process for doing so. He said they will need to determine who is going to pay for the planning commission’s work, including an audit of both school systems.

At the same time, county school officials are waiting to hear from a federal judge on a lawsuit the district recently filed against 10 defendants.

The suburban system’s suit challenges the county commission’s plan for a big school board and asks a judge to either strike down the MCS charter surrender by the school board and the Memphis City Council or make clear when a transfer of MCS to SCS would take effect.

Pickler said it could be months before the district gets the “speedy hearing” requested on the matter.

“If the hearing is announced very quickly then all activity would cease until that happened,” Pickler said.

At the end of the 21/2 -year planning period, the new law opens the door for creation of special school districts and municipal school districts in Shelby County, although further legislative action would be required.

Pickler won’t say whether he’ll pursue special-school-district status for county schools in 2013 or beyond.

Ritz said the new law doesn’t deal with governance during a transition.

“(The law) did say the two school systems have to operate for 30 months,” Ritz said. “That doesn’t mean that there can’t be one school board running both systems.”

Applications for a seat on the unified board are due March 22 and commissioners will interview candidates the following day.

Last month, the city council accepted the city school board’s charter surrender, pending voter approval. The council’s attorney said there would be time for the district to wind down its affairs, with oversight by the city mayor.

It’s unclear whether Tuesday’s vote wiped out MCS, or if the new state law trumps the council’s action.

“Everyone on both sides will challenge the results,” said Memphis City Council chairman Myron Lowery. “There’s no need for me to say this name or that name … It’s going to be decided by the court.”

Former Hamilton County school board member Janice Boydston remembers the tension in the months leading up to the consolidation of Chattanooga area city and county schools in 1997.

Teachers worried about losing their jobs and parents worried about rezoning. City and county school leaders battled over which district’s programs would prevail.

But, she said, the focus must be on the classroom.

“If you back off and get all nervous about it, then the kids are going to be the losers of a year or two of their education,” said Boydston, who initially opposed consolidation, but now thinks it was a good thing. “… Continue as this day is the same as the day before.”


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