January 2011 Archives

ICYMI: Schools pieces from weekend

In case you missed it, some stories we ran in the last few days.

Today our man in Nashville, Richard Locker, gets out ahead of everyone (as usual) with reporting that the House and Senate committees will take the unusual step this week of convening committees to review the school-merger bills.

If the relevant House and Senate committees approve the bills this week, they could be ready for floor votes in both legislative chambers the following week. The full General Assembly reconvenes from a three-week recess on Feb. 7.

As Rick has pointed out before, the vast majority of Shelby County's legislative delegation opposes those bills, but since most of them are Democrats and the Republican suburban legislators are united, it doesn't matter. Republicans dominate both legislative bodies and can do what they want. In this case, they will follow the will of their suburban Republican colleagues from Shelby County.

Ron Ramsey, the speaker of the senate, of course came out last week pushing hard for legislation to block the referendum, citing his opposition to a much-larger school district being allowed to dissolve and effectively swallow up the much-smaller county district. Rick has some quotes from new Gov. Bill Haslam that give some insight int his thinking on the matter.

 "Right now, I don't think it's the state's role to play a part in the argument that's going on. I think the state does have an overarching role in this and that's a sense of -- beyond disputes between cities and counties -- our role is to protect the rights of every child to get a great education.

"We have the ability to be a little bit above the fray, if you will, but to make certain that the end goal is kept in mind. I think that is both my legal responsibility but also my responsibility as a leader of the state."

On Sunday, we looked at the funding disputes that led to the showdown in the first place. Essentially, those Memphians for the referendum believe Memphis taxes would soar and suburban taxes would plummet if the currently all-suburban Shelby County Schools is allowed to become a special school district.

NY Times parachutes in, hits close to bull's eye

It's always fascinating to see how national newspapers portray an hot local issue. We call it parachute journalism, and it is most common for local reporters to chortle and roll eyes at how the national outlets either misunderstand or take a swing and miss. When reporters have dropped in to cover the 9th Congressional District race, they've many more strikeouts than home runs, mainly because, in my view, they arrive with preconceived notions of the voting values and public policy priorities of African-American voters in Memphis.

So when I saw the link to The New York Times article, "Memphis to Vote on Dissolving Its School System," up went the fact-checking antennae and my internal editor readied its seek-and-destroy missiles for firing.  No need, as it turned out. The reporter, Campbell Robertson, provided a nice, succinct outsider's view of both sides of issue.

The surrender . . . was a pre-emptive strike, a way to head off a plan by the separate county school system that could have led to a drastic shortfall in city school revenues. With no Memphis school system, the city schools instead would become the county's responsibility.

Opponents of the move, an unlikely coalition of suburban residents, Republican state lawmakers, a Memphis teachers' union and several of the city's black ministers, see it as an unnecessary provocation, one that could end up hurting schools countywide.

Robertson included some potent phrases that helped boil down the issue for a national audience getting its introduction to Memphis's version of city-suburban tensions.

On the strategy of Memphis City Schools board members like Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart on surrendering the charter: "So, facing the possibility of a suburban special district, the city played its trump card."

Robertson points out Collierville State Sen. Mark Norris describes the state legislation he's proposed as merely an attempt to create an orderly transition: "He contends that it is more like a takeover, and that another, more comprehensive set of school consolidation rules should apply. These rules require a planning commission, and a majority approval by suburban voters as well as city voters."

But Robertson provides this kicker: "That voting arrangement, as it happens, would effectively doom the city's plan."

Go read the whole thing. It's instructive and benefits from being able to look at the issue from 40,000 feet, if you will, and not worry with whatever developments are happening immediately on the ground.

Thursday forums: Call it consolidation-apalooza!

It's like a great music festival for schools forums today -- four in all, three of them focused on the March 8 referendum to put Shelby County in charge of Memphis's schools. But unfortunately you can't get to all of them because many are running at different times and on different stages, so to speak.

The first to mention is one that did not make it into print today but may provide the most objective information, with Rhodes College professor Marcus Pohlmann and University of Memphis law professor Daniel Kiel. City Councilwoman Wanda Halbert is hosting the forum, tonight from 6 to 8 p.m. at St. Paul Baptist Church, 2124 East Holmes Road, and longtime MCS administrator and board member Sara Lewis is also scheduled to appear. Pohlmann's 2008 book on Memphis City Schools, titled "Opportunity Lost," includes some discussions of pros and cons of consolidating schools, and Kiel has published articles on the mistakes made during desegregation of Memphis schools. Both professors helped us with this article on Sunday laying out the key issues in the March 8 referendum.

A non-consolidation related forum hosted by The Leadership Academy is today from noon to 1:30 at the Holiday Inn-University of Memphis, in the grand ballroom, 3700 Central Avenue. MCS board member Tomeka Hart, president of the Memphis Urban League, is moderating "Celebrate What's Right: School Principals Making Great Strides in Urban Education," with a panel featuring Michelle Armstrong (Middle College High School), Jamal McCall (KIPP Memphis), Mike McIntyre (Germantown High School), Jim Pohlman (Memphis Catholic High School) and Bill Taylor (St. George's Independent School).

Former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton is scheduled to speak tonight at a public meeting on school consolidation issues, possibly adding more heat to an already-boiling debate. He is one of several speakers at the forum hosted by County Commissioner Henri E. Brooks from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Hollywood Community Center, 1560 N. Hollywood.

Shelby County Commissioner Melvin Burgess will host an information session on school consolidation from 6 to 7:30 tonight in the Snowden School cafeteria, 1870 N. Parkway. Councilman Jim Strickland and MCS board member Jeff Warren are the guests.

Watch streaming video of the school consolidation debate


The debate is co-sponsored by The Commercial Appeal and WREG-TV Channel 3 and will be shown live from 5:30-7 p.m.

Come here to chat tonight during the schools consolidation debate


Zack McMillin, who has been covering the schools consolidation issue for The Commercial Appeal, will lead a live chat during tonight's debate. The debate is co-sponsored by The Commercial Appeal and WREG-TV Channel 3 and will be shown live from 5:30-7 p.m.

To join in, just check back here any time during the televised debate and be ready to give your opinion.

School unification: The children speak

Yet another public forum related to the schools unification discussion - but this time, from a new perspective.

The release I received today reads:

We have heard about this issue from politicians, preachers and pundits.  Now its time to hear from the pupils.  The Memphis Urban Debate League Advisory Board, a 501(c)(3) public charity, together with Rhodes College and the University of Memphis, is sponsoring two public forum debates on the MCS Charter issue....  Please consider attending to hear what MCS students think (both pro and con) about this important issue that directly impacts them.

Best regards,
Jim Sdoia
Memphis Urban Debate League Advisory Board

The question before the young debaters is this: "Resolved: The voters of the City of Memphis should vote to transfer the administration of Memphis City Schools to the Shelby County Board of Education."
The first debate is at 3 p.m., Jan. 30 at Rhodes College, McCallum Ballroom. Kingsbury students will argue the affirmative and Whitehaven students will argue the negative.
The second debate is at 4 p.m., Feb. 5 at the University of Memphis, Psychology Auditorium.
Carver High students will argue the affirmative and Middle College students will argue the negative.

Memphis Mayor AC Wharton on a charter referendum

Memphis Mayor AC Wharton, who has previously declined to pick sides, still isn't exactly taking sides in the debate over whether MCS should dissolve, effectively merging the district with Shelby County Schools.

But he did release a video about whether Memphis residents should be allowed to vote in a charter referendum. Check it out:

The Vote - Memphis City Schools Charter Surrender 01/12/11 from Mayor Wharton on Vimeo.

MEA on the charter surrender

Tuesday, MEA, the teachers' union that represents Memphis City Schools teachers, held what they called an informational panel discussion about the MCS charter surrender.

"Informational" is in quotes because the meeting quickly became an opportunity for MEA president Keith Williams to speculate on, well, everything.

Here's the flyer that was passed out in the lobby of East High, where Tuesday's discussion was held.

Among their (specious) claims: MCS would lose its bands, sports, optional programs and charter schools if the merger proceeds. And all MCS would get is David Pickler, the Shelby County Schools board chairman.

Of course, this logic doesn't track: If MCS is dissolved, luckily for Pickler, there would be no MCS to give him to.

Wendi C. Thomas is a metro columnist for The Commercial Appeal. Follow her on Twitter at @wendi_c_thomas.
Today's news that State Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville, the Republicans' majority leader, will introduce a bill designed to prevent Memphis City Schools from forcing consolidation without the consent of suburban voters creates yet more questions that attorneys will be paid to provide answers their clients prefer.

So I'm wondering -- could we just go ahead and stop the bickering and just ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to decide how Memphis and Shelby County should organize our public schools?

Rather than wait until probably next year for them to make final rulings on an array of subjects, could we just save lots of time, energy and money and have the Supremes weigh in now?

Among the things we presume the Supreme Court may eventually determine:
  • Whether the referendum held at a date to be determined among Memphis voters properly constitutes a transfer of administration and a de facto consolidation of schools;
  • Whether Norris's 2011 act to force MCS into a year-long consolidation process requiring final approval by city voters and suburban voters in dual referenda has any legal bearing on a process that was officially put into motion in 2010;
  • Whether county voters were disenfranchised by the city voters dissolving MCS and forcing consolidation;
  • Whether a new suburban Shelby special school district created by private act only for Shelby County and breaking tradition of private acts requiring approval by three-quarters of a county's state senators is constitutional;
  • Whether Shelby County taxpayers must absorb the City of Memphis funding of city schools under the state's maintenance of effort law.
Obviously, these things must play out in legislative bodies, in elections and through legal filings, but in the end, it sure seems all of this is headed toward an endgame at the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Schools forums provide info, education

For anyone wanting more direct information from those most deeply involved in Shelby County's public schools showdown, there are many opportunities upcoming and we will post updates when we hear of more.

The first of which is at 11 this morning at Germantown Country Club, where Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler will speak to the Shelby County Republican Women's Club on "State of our Schools: Issues and Updates for Public Education in Shelby County."

The Memphis Education Association, the union for Memphis City Schools teachers, is hosting a 4:15 p.m. rally today at East High School. The MEA leaders say the teachers are opposed to forcing consolidation with Shelby County Schools via charter surrender or transfer of administrative control to the county.

The Memphis City Schools will have its regular work session Thursday evening at the Board of Education. It was rescheduled after being canceled because of weather on Monday.

The most balanced presentation, which has been rescheduled from this evening to next Wednesday (Jan. 19), has Stand For Children hosting several people on various sides of the debate for a forum titled, "The Future of Public Education in Shelby County." It is being held at Bridges, 447 N. 5th St. from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

UofM law professor Daniel Keel, whose scholarship has focused on public school issues in Memphis and Shelby County, and MCS board member Martavius Jones, Pickler, County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference president Rev. Dwight Montgomery will be panelists.

According to a Stand For Children release, the forum is being held "so that the public may engage in discussion and become better informed on the potential merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. We feel this information should be shared from both sides and made understandable and accessible to the community."

Thomas: SCS board says let us pray

Granted, I haven't been to any Shelby County School board meetings before Thursday, but I've been to more than my share of meetings of elected bodies in my time as a journalist.

I'm used to the prayers, offered by various ministers, that begin Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission meetings. And the Memphis City School board begins its meetings with a moment of silence.

But at Thursday's special called meeting of the SCS board, David Pickler said that they started their meetings with prayer. But since they couldn't pray at the meeting, they would go into the hall and everyone who wanted to pray was welcome.

From what I could tell, most if not all of the board members went into the hall, as did many others (most wearing SCS employee badges). A man (not sure who) prayed, referred to Matthew 19:26 and everyone amen'ed.

This was odd for many reasons, including the fact that Pickler is wrong - they could pray at the meeting. An attorney told me that elected bodies can begin their meetings with prayer; Pickler's assertion to the contrary came across as lingering resentment over the separation of church and state and the general sense by conservatives that God has been taken out of schools.

I wonder how parents, students, faculty and staff who are Muslim, Jewish, agnostic or atheist would feel, to see the board file into the hall to pray to a Christian God. Or maybe SCS doesn't have any students, faculty or staff who aren't Christian?

Wendi C. Thomas is a metro columnist for The Commercial Appeal. Follow her on twitter at @wendi_c_thomas.

Thomas: Friday press conference for charter surrender proponents

From a Facebook event created by MCS board member Tomeka Hart, one of two school board members who most strongly supported the MCS charter surrender:

Press Conference: Supporters of School Unity
11:00 a.m. -2 p.m.
Shelby County Commission building

Join the supporters of school unity and a new day for public education in Memphis/Shelby County! It's time we speak louder than the opposition and defenders of separatism!

Wendi C. Thomas is a metro columnist for The Commercial Appeal. Follow her on twitter at @wendi_c_thomas.

Taking sides on the MCS charter surrender


Memphis City mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell both promised earlier this week to post on the city and county websites objective answers to the myriad of questions that surround the MCS charter surrender.

So far, that information isn't online, but if you want to read more about the charter surrender - admittedly from those who have taken a stance one way or another, here are a few links:

Against consolidation: Save Our Students.

For consolidation: Smart City Memphis. (really good writing here.)

For consolidation, but with links to ALL the media coverage of the story so far: Vibinc.

Know of other sites? Please post them below.

SCS board member David Reaves - 1, Gum - 0


There's a reason your mother told you to spit out your gum - and SCS board member David Reaves (who represents Bartlett and part of unincorporated Shelby County) showed us why in at Monday's press conference.

Check out the jaw-jacking at the 4:50 mark (video from WMC-TV).

Read more about Reaves (he does more than chew gum and stand behind the camera looking like the Secret Services) here.

Memphis Tweeple: #whenSCStakesoverMCS

Since the Dec. 20 MCS board vote to surrender its charter, Twitter has been abuzz with 140-character-long musings on the MCS charter surrender, the SCS fight for special school district status and all the characters involved.

Earlier this week, though, two local Tweeple got started on a new hashtag: #WhenSCSTakesOverMCS.

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter (@mikecarpenter1) showed his funny side with this Tweet:

MCS children will have to walk 5 miles uphill in the snow. #whenSCStakesoverMCS
And this one:

Cafeteria ladies will no longer wear hair nets. #whenSCStakesoverMCS

Using that hashtag, what would you Tweet?

Wendi C. Thomas is a metro columnist for The Commercial Appeal. Follow her on twitter at @wendi_c_thomas.

Thomas: Chattanooga paper supports MCS charter surrender

Outsiders have started weighing in on the Memphis City Schools charter surrender.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press opined two days after the Memphis City Schools voted to surrender its charter. The lengthy editorial says in part:

Given the ground Hamilton County and Knox County school systems have covered since similar merger referendums in 1994 and 1986, respectively, the Memphis school board has made the right call. A merger of the two systems may be hard initially, but in the end it will bind Memphis together and force progress to solve what has become an untenable and, ultimately, unsustainable fracture in the Memphis area.

I'll be blogging on the MCS' charter surrender and the SCS' fight for special school district status here.

Wendi C. Thomas is a metro columnist for The Commercial Appeal. Follow her on Twitter at @wendi_c_thomas.
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