February 2011 Archives

Crunching some early-vote numbers

Heading into the final days of early voting on the March 8 schools referendum, turnout remains tepid. After one full week of early voting, 12,948 people have participated, or only about 3.1 percent of the city's 420,425 voters. Since early voting expanded to satellite locations, an average of 1,921 voters have been showing up on weekdays. Voting continues through Thursday at satellite locations throughout the city.

Turnout usually spikes in the final days of early voting, but even if you are generous and imagine an average of 4,000 voters per day through Thursday's final day of early voting, that would make about 29,000 early votes, or about 6.9 percent of registered voters. Early voting has been making up closer to 60 percent of final turnout in recent elections, although it's difficult to gauge how that dynamic will play out in a special election involving a referendum. Still, voting interest would need to jump in a big way for turnout to challenge 15 percent.

As far as who is voting, the best performing precincts by percentage have been in the more white, more affluent neighborhoods. The Shelby County Election Commission provides data on numbers of votes cast so far by precinct, and only 11 of the top 30 precincts are majority-black neighborhoods, according to voting data. That said, four of the five best-peforming precincts are in majority-black neighborhoods -- Glenview Community Center (9.6 percent turnout, or 143 votes), Lakeview Elementary School (7.0 percent turnout, or 171 votes), Havenview Middle School (6.5 percent, or 199 votes) and Graves Elementary School (5.9 percent, or 266 votes).

Add those four up and you get 779 votes -- or about 6.0 percent of all votes cast so far. Eight of the next 11 (and thus 9 of the top 16) best-performing precincts are majority white, and they account for a total of 1,065 votes -- or about 8.0 percent of all votes cast. Of the worst-performing 30 precincts, only one is not a majority-black precinct.

While everyone in the Sports world is all, um, atwitter about the Grizzlies trade (and almost-trade) and the contract situations the team will face, we bring you news that the Shelby County Schools board extended Superintendent John Aitken's contract to 2015. It was set to expire in 2013, coinciding exactly with the planned date to implement a consolidated sountywide school district if Memphis voters (and judges) approve dissolution of the city's special school district.

The only board member voting against was Diane George of Collierville, who raised objections to risking $400,000 (Aitken's buyout) of taxpayer money if the new consolidated district decides to go in another direction for its leader. Aitken, whose degrees are from Henderson State and the University of Memphis (Master's) is in his second full year as superintendent after one year in administration that followed a career spent as a teacher and principal.

On an anti-consolidation Facebook page called "Children First, No Surrender," some were suggesting extending Aitken's contract even farther and adding an even larger buyout, to make sure nobody else gets considered as leader of a new consolidated system.

Some MCS board members believe they have a greater reason to extend the contract of Kriner Cash, their superintendent, out of concern that he could otherwise bolt during the interim and leave the district without a leader until a consolidation is implemented. Cash's buyout, by the way, is only 12 months vs. Aitken's 24 months, in the event a consolidation occurs and another leader is chosen.

More schools YouTube fun: Pickler, Shafer, Thomas

OK, so now that I'm on YouTube, I see a few more videos worth checking out. I don't have time to watch every second of them, but apparently a show on 640-AM, "For Life and Liberty," has some relevant YouTube videos.

This 2009 interview with David Pickler is revealing -- he's talking about the "Plan B" single-source school funding plan conceived by a committee in 2009 that would have essentially transferred the education tax burden Memphians pay as part of their city taxes and spread it across the entire county tax base. Pickler and Shelby County Schools opposed it and eventually stopped participating in talks. A fair question to ask now: If SCS had agreed to the single-source funding plan, would we be having this consolidation discussion now? Or would it have merely further emboldened those seeking schools consolidation now?

Another 640-AM video worth checking out is a more recent one with County Commissioners Heidi Shafer and Chris Thomas, talking about schools consolidation. Shafer, whose Dist. 1 is about 80 percent in Memphis, has been consistently allied on this issue with Thomas and the two other county commissioners whose districts are 100-percent suburban. A former schoolteacher, Shafer is very skeptical about the merits of combining the two districts.

YouTube, a voter's best friend

While I was talking to voters yesterday (Wednesday) at White Station Church of Christ, an older gentleman told me he felt well-informed because of a presentation he saw with University of Memphis law professor Daniel Kiel (see post below). Which forum? I asked. "YouTube," came his reply.

So consider me educated -- a retiree schooled this new media journalist on an efficient use of technology.

YouTube does indeed provide this presentation by Kiel, which runs in Part One and Part Two and Part Three and Part Four. So click below on his PowerPoint and then follow along on YouTube.

Education moment for Memphis, Shelby

Whatever stance those engaged with the issue may have on whether voters should approve or reject the March 8 referndum to transfer administrative control of Memphis City Schools to the Shelby County Board of Education, there is no denying the deep interest in the issue of public education. No matter what happens with the referendum -- or in the newly created school boards, planning commission, courts, etc. -- it has generated a vital communitywide conversation on the issue of public education in Shelby County.

You can see it on the Germantown Municipal Schools Facebook page (mostly opposed to consolidation but very interested in possible separation of municipal districts from Shelby County Schools) and on the Friends United for School Equality page (very pro-referendum and strong advocates for Memphis schools). A member of the Germantown group posted a link to the education anti-testing documentary "Race to Nowhere," wondering about bringing a screening to the area. On the FUSE page, many events have been organized, including a "Moms' night out" dinner to focus on education talk. Even at the state legislature, after the senate vote on Sen. Mark Norris's bill, Germantown Sen. Brian Kelsey announced there would be a screening of the education documentary "Waiting for Superman."

Though the worldviews of those groups may differ in some fundamental ways, both sides are passionately concerned about ensuring that their children -- and those of others -- receive the best possible education. In some ways, Memphis and Shelby County are at the epicenter of the national conversation about education reform.

Most recently, Fast Company magazine, which focuses on business innovation and leadership, asked the question: How Would You Spend $100 Million To Save Education? The article begins with this straightforward quote: "The elite has become obsessed with fixing public schools." And they use a quote from an education reformer who said, "for the under-40 set, education reform is what feeding kids in Africa was in 1980." 

Early-voting numbers update

After this quick update of early voting in the March 8 schools referendum, we're going to wait a few days to comment on turnout -- unless, of course, there is a huge bump that seems newsworthy. For more context on how the "low" turnout so far is a little bit unfair and premature of an assessment, see yesterday's post below.

Today's story on early voting points out that election officials were not expecting big days either Saturday or Monday, the first two days early voting expanded to the 16 satellite locations throughout the city. Saturday's are usually lighter than weekdays for early voting, and Monday was the President's Day bank holiday, keeping a lot of people at home or with their kids (or grandkids), if not out of town altogether making a long weekend of it.

A total of 1,458 people participated Monday, pushing the overall total to 3,619 after three days of downtown-only voting and the two days of full satellite expansion. Voting continutes today through Saturday and then again next Monday through next Thursday (March 3). After that, votes can only be cast on election day (March 8), and then only at your assigned voting precinct (voters participating in early voting may cast a ballot at any early-voting site, regardless of their home precinct).

In terms of demographics, the only noteworthy trend Monday was a real drop in voters registered as "other" (310, or 21.3 percent) -- that cohort had occupied 26 percent of the vote going into Monday. Most elections observers here consider that "other" category to be mostly comprised of more newly registered voters, and those registered as black voters or white voters probably encompassing older voters.

Numbers will likely start to rise this week and, if trends hold, the four days of voting next week will probably see more voters than than previous seven combined. There are still plenty of opportunities for voters to educate themselves about the ramifications of voting YES or NO on approving transfer of administrative control of Memphis schools to Shelby County.

For more information and to keep up yourself, go to www.ShelbyVote.com and find the link on the lefthand side of the page. Or just click here.

Schools website filled with resources


If you haven't already, check out the web page we set up dedicated to the March 8 schools referendum. Kudos to lead editor Jacinthia Jones and the designers, who oh by the way also worked with faith guru and Hall of Fame journalist David Waters to launch another fantastic site on Sunday, Faith in Memphis.

Obviously, go to our schools site and read every single word. Twice. Memorize them. Or not. But do check it out.

One great resource available online at the site is the repository of documents, including studies, budgets, legal documents, etc. We also have included some PowerPoint presentations, and though Some have an obvious agenda, University of Memphis professor Daniel Kiel's continually evolving presentation seeks to explain the issue from an objective -- if not detached -- point of view.

Prof. Kiel, a White Station graduate who came back to Memphis after getting his law degree at Harvard, has published a study of the ways Memphis botched desegregation (racist obstructionists violating federal law led to overreaching busing plans not concerned enough with educational outcomes). The main lessons he said he took from those schools battles of the 60s and 70s -- not enough reasoned voices spoke up to attempt to moderate the contentious battles. Kiel has thus been practicing what he was preaching -- going to forum after forum to present his even-handed, objective view of the current situation.

Anyway, check out this PowerPoint. Tell us what you think.

Very early early-vote totals

Though it's far too early to detect any patterns or trends in the scant early voting that has so far occurred on the March 8 schools referendum, there are raw numbers available from the first three days of non-expanded early voting and Saturday's one and only (so far) full day of satellite voting at 16 other locations around the city.

A total of 1,479 people participated at early-voting sites on Saturday. Headed into this week's early voting (available at all of the satellite voting locations), a total of 2,161 people had participated overall (note that the numbers also reflect absentee ballots and votes collected from nursing homes). That's 0.5 percent of Memphis's 413,156 registered voters, and of course 12 more days remain.

It's hard to get a strong feel for whether that is a strong or weak turnout, in the context of previous elections. In the 2007 city elections, the first Saturday of expanded early voting drew 2,040 voters, while in the 2003 city election, only 877 participated in the first Saturday of expanded early voting. We've misplaced our spreadsheets from the 2009 special mayoral election, but reading our old news reports it appears Saturday's number was pretty close to what was posted on the first Saturday of expanded voting in that election (UPDATE: First Saturday of expanded early voting in 2009 special mayoral election had 1,886 voters). Keep in mind, too, that the regular city elections feature dozens of candidates using lots of campaign money to get out the vote -- this election officially has no candidates and concerns just one issue over which there has been much confusion.

The top four locations Saturday were no huge surprise -- White Station Church of Christ (215), Bishop Byrne Catholic School (202), Berclair Church of Christ (149) and Mississippi Blvd. Christian Church (142). Perhaps somewhat of a surprise was the Agricenter location lagging so far behind, with 103 ballots cast, but that could be due to the fact that non-Memphis voters are not eligible for the referendum to transfer administrative control of Memphis schools to Shelby County. Keep in mind that, during early voting, people can cast ballots at any location, regardless of where they live and the precinct they are assigned to vote. So someone living in East Memphis can cast a vote at Mississippi Blvd. in Midtown, for instance. On Election Day, voters must report to their assigned precinct.

The demographic breakdowns were 1,005 registered as black voters (46.5 percent), 594 registered as white voters (27.5 percent) and 562 (26.0 percent) registered as "other." The "other" category usually represents more newly-registered voters who did not disclose race and generally follows the ratio reflected the the black-white breakdown. A good guess here is 60-percent black, 35-percent white with some true non-white and non-black making up the difference.

Later in the week when there are more numbers to work with, we will spreadsheet the turnout and try to zero in on the specific neighborhoods where turnout is the strongest
and those where it is the weakest.

Click on the jump below to the right to see a listing of all voting locations:

This quote from Ken Hoover, the Germantown parent who came so close this summer to ending David Pickler's 11-year run as Shelby County Schools chairman, drew the largest applause of Thursday's Stand for Children Forum in Cordova:

"The most disturbing thing about this discussion is we seem to rapidly shift to, 'Well, I'm going to tell you why those other guys are a bunch of sorry so and so's.' And you heard it again tonight, 'They were trying to do that and we were only trying to do this.' The problem with that conversation is it's not focused on how we all need to do better."

That got cut out of our story this morning for reasons of space. Hoover also said that while he would urge Memphians to vote no, he respected them (but disagreed) for believing a vote to merge the schools could create harmony. But he emphasized: "I certainly don't want to call any of you names because you live on a different side of the city limits than I do."

One question asked what those opposed would do if the merger passed, and Hoover was emphatic -- he will continue to evangelize for his belief that smaller districts are much more effective at delivering optimal educational outcomes for the communities they serve. Hoover said he would encourage Memphians to contemplate a Whitehaven special school district, a Frayser special school district, an East Memphis special school district, etc.

"Bigger school districts serve children less well and impoverished schoolchildren are particularly at-risk," Hoover said.
Why is The Commercial Appeal the only news outlet in town that covers almost every board meeting of the Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools? Because of situations like the one that played out at Thursday's SCS board meeting.

Go read all of Sherri Drake Silence's detailed reporting on the SCS Board's desire to insure that Superintendent John Aitken receives right at $400,000 in severance from county taxpayers if he is not chosen to be the leader of a unified county school system. Board member Mike Wissman said he pushed the idea forward to insure stability for the currently suburban-only county system, should Memphis voters approve a March 8 referendum to transfer administrative control to the county.

Diane George, the only non-male member of the seven-person board, objected on the basis of not putting yet more taxpayer money at risk. She wanted to have more discussion, but felt that she was being interrupted and otherwise stifled by David Pickler, the SCS board's chairman for 11 of the 12 years it has existed as an elected body. From Sherri's story:

George left the board's conference room abruptly, saying it wasn't fair to taxpayers. "Thank you, Lord," board member Ernest Chism said when George left. The comment drew lots of laughs.

Wissman and board member Joe Clayton, who expressed support of the contract extension, asked if George's early exit could be included in the notes of the meeting.

The question MCS advocates would ask -- if the same thing had happened at an MCS board meeting, would it have received so little notice from the majority of news outlets? Imagine if MCS decided right now to rework Kriner Cash's contract to guarantee him, at minimum, a $400,000 parachute if he is not chosen as superintendent. And how would it have been played if an MCS board of just one woman had featured that woman being interrupted and made fun of by the men when she became upset?

At the Stand For Children forum in Cordova last night, Wissman and Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey had an exchange over the lack of diversity represented on the currently all-suburban Shelby County Board of Education. It is inexcusable in this day and age, Bailey alleged, that the Shelby County Board of Education looks like it does -- six white men (three of them retirees) and one white woman. Wissman defended SCS, saying the suburbs are justifiably proud of the results the SCS board has produced over the years. Wissman said Bailey was correct there were no ethnic minorities on the SCS board "but also I guess that's what you call a democracy. ... Whether the new board is all white, all black, all female, nobody can really say how it's going to be broken down. All the county commission is doing is breaking down the districts and it will be up to the voters to decide who they want to represent them."

Suburban opponents of the merger, by the way, are seizing on the comment made by MCS board member Martavius Jones at a Mid-South Tea Party forum in Bartlett: "The automatic combining of the two school systems is not going to make it better. But, I would contend that if Shelby County were given special-school-system status, we would not be able to provide the current level of education that we are providing right now."

To be fair to Jones, I have heard him describe many ways he believes a unified system gives the opportunity to combine the best of both systems to better meet student needs. At the Cordova forum, Germantown parent Ken Hoover (who nearly upset Pickler in the summer elections) refuted that, pointing to a study that he said shows how consolidations actually  make education worse for the most at-risk students in a community.

Is huge countywide school board such a bad idea?

Our Shelby County government reporter, Daniel Connolly, has done a fabulous job explaining what is happening with the Shelby County Commission's push for an expanded countywide Shelby County Board of Education in preparation for a March 8 vote to merge Memphis schools with those in the suburbs (see here and here). Much mirth is being made over the proposed size of the board -- right now it's 25 but seems likely to shrink when the county gets census figures almost sure to show a greater proportion of the county's population in the suburbs.

Certainly that's much larger than the current seven-member suburban-only Shelby County Schools board and also the nine-member Memphis City Schools board. With 16 total members for about 150,000 total students, the sum of the two systems board members is still smaller than the proposed new board. An important point -- the commissioners are saying up front they want to eventually shrink the size of a unified countywide board to a more manageable number. But is that such a great idea? Much is being made, especially from suburban opponents of the merger, about the need for more neighborhood accountability and empowerment. Going by that logic, would you not want fewer voters per school member?

Talk amongst yourselves about that one. In the meantime, also consider the size of boards for private schools. Putting ye olde Google machine to use, see the following schools and their number of board members.
  • Briarcrest: 16 members of their Board of Trustees.
  • Christian Brothers: 18 board members.
  • Harding Academy: 18 board members, plus 11 alumni board members.
  • St. Mary's Episcopal School: 25 board members, plus another nine ex-officio, at-large or emeriti members.
If you applied those per-pupil numbers to public schools in Shelby County, we'd be talking about hundreds of board members.

Yet another presentation tonight (Thursday) is a special meeting at the Memphis City Schools board auditorium beginning at 5:30. University of Memphis researchers Steve Redding and Charlie Santo, who produced the oft-mentioned 2008 study on the impact a suburban-only special school district could have on Memphis, will be talking about their findings. Because of a clause in the contract they signed to produce the study, Redding and Santo have had to turn down media requests -- Shelby County Schools had given them a release to talk but Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash had not.

As we pointed out in this article on schools funding, the U of M study (click the link to see it) and MCS's reading of it (click here for that) has been a key part of the standoff.

For those who don't know, it's at 2597 Avery Avenue (off Hollwood between Union and Central) and can be heard on 88.5 FM Radio and seen on Memphis City Schools' cable television station.

Listing of school forums

Forums? We've got schools forums. These are in today's print edition and/or were printed earlier in the week. If we accidentally include the same one twice, forgive the redundancy. If you know of others, please send them along to metro@commercialappeal.com.


  • State Rep. Barbara Cooper will host a schools forum 6-8 p.m. at Central Station, 545 S. Main. Invited guests include state Sen. Jim Kyle, state Sen. Mark Norris, state Rep. Joe Towns and state Education Commissioner Patrick Smith.
  • The Mid-South Tea Party is sponsoring a school merger forum from 6:30 to 8:30 Thursday night p.m. at the Bartlett Station Municipal Center auditorium, 5868 Stage. Merger proponents include Memphis City Schools board member Martavius Jones, Memphis City  Councilman Shea Flinn and state Rep. G.A.  Hardaway, D-Memphis. Opponents include Bartlett  Mayor Keith McDonald,  Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler and  state Reps. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, and Curry  Todd, R-Collierville.
  • Commissioners Chris Thomas, Wyatt Bunker and Terry Roland, who all represent suburban areas,  have scheduled a 6 p.m. town hall meeting just before the Mid-South Tea Party event also at the Bartlett Station Municipal Center.
  • Houston High School and Germantown High School will co-host an "informational meeting about the future of Shelby County Schools" at 5 p.m. in the Houston High auditorium with SCS board chairman David Pickler.
  • Stand for Children will host a community forum from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the potential school merger at Trinity Baptist Church, 8899 Trinity Road in Cordova. Panelists include state Rep. Mark WhiteNorris, Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey, Shelby County Schools board member Mike Wissman and Cardell Orrin, co-manager of Citizens for Better Education.
  • Memphis City Councilwoman Wanda Halbert is hosting an informational meeting on the school consolidation merger vote at 6 p.m. at the Bert Ferguson Community Center, 8505 Trinity Road in Cordova.


Memphis parents in favor of the merger will gather from 11 a.m. to noon at Mississippi Blvd. Christian Church, 70 N. Bellevue, for a Get Out The Vote Campaign rally.

Education Chat with Commissioner Steve Mulroy and Dr. Joy Clay. 11:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. First Congregational Church, 1000 South Cooper Street.

"The Pros and Cons of merging the Memphis City and Shelby County School Systems." at 6 p.m. - First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall. Featured speakers include County Commissioner and University of Memphis Law Professor Steve Mulroy, Jackson Baker of The Memphis Flyer and Ryan Tracy from Stand for Children. The forum will address written questions submitted prior to the start of the event, to ensure that it remains an informative discussion, rather than a political debate. The goals of this forum are to: Explain how we now find ourselves at this crossroads, deciding whether to vote Yes or No on the March 8 Referendum; evaluate the pros and cons of consolidation, both for the citizens of Memphis and for those in other parts of Shelby County; and, explore the possible consequences of maintaining the status quo. Free childcare will be provided for children under 7. Reserve your spot by Friday, February 18 by clicking here. Please submit questions by clicking here.  You may also arrive early to submit a written question.

Heidi Shafer called to clarify why she abstained from joining her Memphis colleagues on the County Commission in voting to begin preparations for a new Shelby County school board that would begin with 27 members -- the seven currently on the all-suburban county school board and 20 Memphians to insure the new board has proportional representation. Shafer, a former schoolteacher herself who was elected in August, said she asked for a an opinion from the county attorney's office on whether the Commission's action would stand up to judicial scrutiny.

"I want to make sure we're not doing something we have to undo later," Shafer said.

Shafer also said that she is concerned that consolidation might lead to a drop in the total amount of federal Title 1 money schools that would flow to schools here.

As to why she had previously allied herself with the body's three suburban Republicans and broken ranks with two other representatives of the Commission's Dist. 1 -- fellow Republicans Mike Ritz and Mike Carpenter -- Shafer said she has serious reservations about Memphis acting hastily to force Memphis City Schools to consolidate with the all-suburban Shelby County Schools.
"I just think it's not a good idea to be doing it without some kind of plan in place," Shafer said. "Nobody does that in business. Nobody."

Of course, MCS board member Martavius Jones, the financial planner who made the motion to surrender the charter, has said many times in debates that large corporate mergers happen all the time without a comprehensive plan. But Shafer believes the onus on creating the plan, in this case, should be on the MCS board members who decided to dissolve in large part because of their fear that the a suburban-only special school district would be formed to permantly freeze out Memphis.

Shafer also said she isn't sympathetic to the argument from her Memphis colleagues that there is a great need to quickly give Memphis representation on a unified school board. She cited areas where annexation has occurred that created situations where some residents went without representation.

"Some of them went without representation for two years," Shafer said. "I just think if it's good for the goose it's good for the gander. Let's have fairness and move the way we normally move."

Shafer said she disagrees with those Memphians who are outraged at the Republican-dominated Tennessee state legislature's bill to delay merger by creating a planning commission appointed by and large by suburban interests.

"I don't think they have desire to stick it to Memphis," Shafer said. "What they are concerned about is trying to bring some kind of rational approach."

And, Shafer said, Memphians who claim to be gung-ho for consolidating the school systems may be pushing the county toward some unintended consequences that could be bad for everyone. Combining Memphis schoolchildren and suburban schoolchildren under one district, Shafer said, is not necessarily going to lead to better outcomes.

"I don't want everybody to be equally miserable," Shafer said.

Heidi Shafer taking interesting stance on schools

As part of his Friday press conference, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton stressed how unified Memphis's elected officials -- of all races and all parties -- are on the issue of whether Memphis has the right to determine the future of public education for its students. He admitted there were a few exceptions, and while he didn't call out specific names, he sounded disgusted that state legislators who represent Memphians voted for State Sen. Mark Norris's legislation. Sen. Brian Kelsey and Rep. Mark White are two Republican legislators who fit that description; their districts encompass parts of Memphis and the suburbs.

In terms of the County Commission and City Council, the votes have been almost unanimous -- only newly-elected District 1 commissioner Heidi Shafer has openly opposed plans that might expedite the merger, should voters approve the March 8 referendum to transfer administrative control of Memphis's schools to Shelby County. Shafer and fellow Republicans Mike Ritz and Mike Carpenter also represent District 1, which has 65 precincts -- 54 in Memphis, eight in unincorporated Shelby County and three in Germantown. Ritz and Carpenter have become staunch supporters of the March 8 referendum.

Today, however, Shafer moved somewhat toward the city position -- she abstained on the Commission's vote increase the size of a unified county school board from the current seven-member suburban-only body to a 27-member body so Memphis has proportional representation. It passed anyway, 9-3, with the three suburban-only commissioners (Terry Roland, Wyatt Bunker, Chris Thomas) voting against.

Shafer explained the non-vote: "I'm very concerned about potential loss of Title 1 funding if we do combine the systems."

Title 1 is the federal-government program that provides supplemental funding for districts based on student needs. It's unclear why Shafer believes Title 1 would go down in the event of a merger, at least not why it might go down for Memphis schools and students. Reading the federal guidelines, it appears that schools with Memphis students would be more likely to gain more Title 1 funding, not less.

Some links on Title 1 for those who want to read more on it:




Prof. Wharton hints at Memphis's legal options

At a press conference today at his mayoral offices at City Hall, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton sounded like an old lawyer itching to make opening arguments in a legal case on the right of Memphis to surrender the charter of its special school district and transfer administrative control to Shelby County.

Rather than provide a normal narrative breakdown, I think it's instructive to just listen to Wharton's words and see how his legal mind works -- and understand why some have said he was such a brilliant courtroom lawyer. It's no coincidence that Wharton made such an impression as an attorney and law professor that one of his old students, John Grisham, based a character in one of his books on Wharton.

To begin with, Wharton's thoughts on the legislation from State Sen. Mark Norris that Gov. Haslam signed today:

"The bill was flawed from its very inception because no matter how you polish it up or amend it, it sets out to change the rules of the game in the middle of the game."
"I know various reasons have been assigned why the law had to be changed.

"'The schools were failing.' Well, they were failing two years ago -- nobody took any action.
"'We're sending a lot of money down there.' They've been sending a lot of money down here five, 10, 15 years ago -- nobody changed anything.
"Well, Memphis is big. Memphis was big five years ago, 10 years ago. Nobody set out to change it.
"It's just clear. You don't have to be Dick Tracy or a detective to see what happened here. Only when Memphis City Schools, whether you agree or disagree, followed a law that had been on the books for decades -- all of a sudden that law had to be changed.
"There is no way to amend the bill and erase that initial fatal flaw."
Then here is Wharton on possible legal action the city might take:

"I've already had preliminary discussion with City Atty. Herman Morris. We've had preliminary talks with Council Atty. Allan Wade and we will be getting together very shortly.
On legal grounds the city might pursue:

"I have my theories in mind.
"There's denial of equal protection. There are aspects of federal constitution embraced in state constitution, the law of land provision in the state constitution, and the fifth and 14th amendments deal with due process.
"There may also be some voting rights. I happen to have taught this and there are cases that are legendary throughout the south, in cities where they saw minorities getting the majority and they started changing the qualifications."
"Look what we have here. Six months ago Citizens of Memphis had the unbridled right to surrender the charter of Memphis City Schools and without anything else the enrollees in that school system would go back to their parents.
"Now what do I mean by that? When the Shelby County School system was chartered decadees ago it made a pledge to educate all of the children in Shelby County Tenn. That's why it's called a county school board.

"In a way, Memphis City Schools could be equated to a babsysitter who babysat those kids for a couple of decades and they are now saying we are bringing your children back to you -- because they (Shelby) have not relinquished their charter. They've always had the repsonsibilty for every child in Shelby County, Tenn. And the only thing that was required to send the children back home was to do as the board did on the 20th (Dec. 20, when the MCS board surrendered the charter and asked for a referendum to transfer administrative control). That's all that was required. If you were to ask the school system on that date, what else was required of them, the answer would be, 'Nothing.'

"But now other things are required. Again, you don't have to spend a day in law school to say, 'Wait a minute, something is wrong.'"
Wharton had other things to say, but this was his conclusion:

"I don't know what legal theory that is. It's like a Supreme Court justice said he couldn't define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. I can't tell you what it violates but I can tell you it stinks."
The City Council will meet today (Thursday) at 5 to consider the resolution to approve surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter. This of course creates a lot of unanswerable questions. The basic answer City Council Chairman Myron Lowery gives is that MCS will continue its current operations, the March 8 referendum will still be held and eventually courts will sort out what actions by which entities have force of law, which are unconstitutional, which might create violations of federal civil rights laws, etc.

The resolution provided to members of the media last week spells out a contingency plan that puts Memphis Mayor A C Wharton in charge of negotiations with Shelby County to a) continue operations of MCS without disruption and b) generate a transition plan for full consolidation with county schools to be implemented by July 2012. Those pushing for the council to surrender say it creates another path, along with the referendum, for Memphians to force schools consolidation with the currently all-suburban Shelby County Schools. The state legislation which has been passed by the House and Senate is tied only to the referendum.

After the jump, read the full text of the resolution passed out last week.

Our Nashville bureau chief, Richard Locker, sends this along, quoting the new Speaker of the House boasting about reducing Memphis's influence on state education policy. It does seem that Memphis-bashing never loses its power as an easy way to score political points for politicians outside of the Memphis area.

By Richard Locker
NASHVILLE - It's no secret that the Republican tidal wave that swept through the Tennessee statehouse in November sparked the current war over consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County Schools. It's up for debate which side -- city or county school officials -- first put fire to the cannon fuse but both MCS Board member Martavious Jones and SCS Board chairman David Pickler both immediately proclaimed that the new 64-34 GOP majority in the House of Representatives washed away the longstanding roadblock to the county school system's dreams of conversion to a special school district.

That roadblock was the House Education Committee, long dominated by Democrats - and particularly Memphis Democrats -- who favored MCS over the suburban district. SCS's annual attempt to lift the state's ban on the creation of new special school districts, enacted in 1982, always crashed against the Democratic firewall in either the K-12 subcommittee or the full Education Committee.

New State House Speaker Beth Harwell turned the Education Committee from what had been a 12-12 split between Democrats and Republicans during the last two years into a 12-6 GOP majority. She also appointed only two members from the city of Memphis -- Democratic Reps. John DeBerry and Lois DeBerry -- where there were five Memphis Democrats on it during the last two years.

Harwell boasted of that move when she spoke last weekend to Sumner County Republicans, according to TNreport.com, a news website covering state government.  TNreport.com quoted Harwell as telling the GOP gathering, "We have, I think, the best education committee that has ever existed in the General Assembly. I broke up the Memphis control over it. I put some of our best and brightest on (the House committee). It is made up with some of our financial gurus on both the Democrat and Republican sides. We have elevated that committee significantly."

TNreport.com reported that Harwell "walked a tightrope" on the issue of whether to repeal the 1970s statute that gave local teachers' associations collective bargaining rights with local school boards. TNreport.com's Mike Morrow wrote that she said she hasn't decided whether to support the bill sponsored by her House GOP colleague, Rep. Debra Maggart of Hendersonville.

The bill to repeal the Professional Negotiations Act is one of several Republicans have introduced far to roll back measures won by the Tennessee Education Association during the years of Democratic rule, including bills to weaken tenure and remove TEA's statutory ability to nominate members to various boards and commissions.

Letters from Jones, Carpenter to senators

After the jump, letters from Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter and Memphis City Schools board member Martavius Jones sent to state senators who will be deliberationg and (presumably) voting on S.B. 25, which would as currently tailored would go into effect if Memphis voters approve the March 8 referendum to transfer administrative control of Memphis schools to Shelby County.

Wednesday forum oriented toward students


See below for the release from the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals about a forum Wednesday evening at the Church Health Center in Midtown that is being described as more student-oriented.

Memphis Urban League Young Professionals and MPACT Memphis Address School Consolidation


MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The Memphis Urban League Young Professionals (MULYP) and MPACT Memphis will host an Education Matters Fact Forum on Wednesday, February 9, 2011, at the Church Health Center from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.  While there have been many opportunities to educate voters on the upcoming referendum to consolidate Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, few have attempted to address how this will impact the students.

"Our goal is to fill the audience with as many students as possible because the outcome of this referendum will affect them," said Christina Watkins, Youth Mentoring and Development Chair for MULYP.

This is, undoubtedly, one of the most important decisions to affect education in our community; therefore, MULYP and MPACT want voters to gain as much information as possible. The forum, moderated by Lauren Johnson of Fox 13 News, will consist of panelists representing both sides of the issue. If you are a parent, teacher, student or concerned citizen, MULYP and MPACT urge you to attend this forum.

Please submit any questions regarding how the referendum will impact students to Toya Cobb, MULYP Civic Engagement and Advocacy Chair, at memphisulyp.civics@gmail.com.

 WHO: Memphis Urban League Young Professionals and MPACT Memphis

 WHAT: Education Matters Fact Forum

 WHEN: February 9, 2011, 6 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.

 WHERE:  Church Health Center, 1115 Union Avenue, 38104

For more information, contact:

Jamila Watson

Public Relations Chair

Memphis Urban League Young Professionals

E-mail:  Memphisulyp.pr@gmail.com

Phone:  901.340.2781

Tuesday night forum in east East Memphis

While many of the school forums heretofore have been held either closer to the middle of the city or further out in the suburbs, Tuesday night's event at the Beth Sholom Synagogue gives those in what I like to call east East Memphis a chance to hear information on the decision facing Memphis voters in the March 8 referendum.

"Exploring the Options: A Panel on Memphis/Shelby County School Unification," will feature a presentation from University of Memphis law professor Daniel Kiel and a discussion featuring UofM law professors Kate Schaffzin and Steve Mulroy, who also serves as a Shelby County Commissioner and is strong in favor of what the "yes" side calls schools unification. It begins at 7 p.m.

The synagogue is right near the Germantown border, which could draw citizens who use different language to describe the effort by Memphians to transfer administrative control from the special school district known as Memphis City Schools to Shelby County. Beth Sholom is at 6675 Humphreys Blvd, which happens to be right across from Opera Memphis - which just became the new voting site for some of the voters in the affluent and large 80-02 precinct (Kirby Woods Baptist Church has long been the home voting site for all voters in that precinct).

To get an idea of Kiel's grasp of the issue and the history of school issues in Memphis and Shelby County, check out these two WKNO radio pieces that rely almost entirely on Kiel's easy-to-understand explanations. Eleanor Boudreau of WKNO has been providing radio (and web) listeners some informative pieces on schools, and of course WKNO-TV Channel 10 is airing live this evening's session of the state Senate, where a floor vote on the school-consolidation bill is scheduled. It is set to begin at 5 p.m.

Thoughts on Herenton ideas, Norris's bill


Some quick thoughts:

  • Much as some people say they loathe Willie Herenton, it's interesting to note that many people rave about the city optional schools he deserves credit for promoting as superintendent. Many people also tend to agree with his concept for a single-source funded county district broken into smaller districts. Herenton is starting to insert himself more gradually into this discussion, last night appearing on on Fox 13 News to debate Shelby County Schools commissioner Mike Wissman.
  • What if ... Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, were to amend his schools consolidation bill such that it required any newly created special school district or municipal school district to accept out-of-district transfers - a number that would not be insubstantial but also would not create too outsized a burden (let's say up to 25 percent of a district's enrollment). You could qualify the transfers as needing to come from schools, say, where median income is below a certain level or with terrible value-added scores. Might that alleviate the issue of a county's individual, more-resourced communities being allowed to separate and construct walls to keep out the least fortunate? Of course, it's possible that the lower-performing schools might reasonably object and say such a rule would mean the loss of their most motivated students and parents and leave them with a population of students from even less-stable environments.

Consider this a disclaimer for anyone who may have noticed that 'Zack McMillin' has joined two partisan Facebook groups. One is "Germantown Municipal Schools" and the other is "Friends United for School Equality (FUSE)." The Facebook labels sometimes make it hard for journalists - joining someone's network means you are their 'Friend' or have joined their 'Group' or 'Like' them - but it is vital we remain privy to the sometimes compelling conversations happening on social media.

In some respects, the two groups could not be more different.

The Germantown residents - more than 1,000 have signed a petition -- want no part of any massive school district, and many of them believe the current all-suburban Shelby County Schools, at about 45,000 students, is too large as it is.

The FUSE members are primarily parents of children in one of Memphis City Schools optional programs. They've gone from worrying about the threats Shelby County Schools board chair David Pickler has made about ending optional programs to believing the only way forward for Memphis students is to force a merger with Shelby County. They cite a host of reasons, many of them to do with taxing and funding, but at heart they believe, as their name suggests, in unifying all students in one system.

One area where they do seem to agree - the state should be doing more to give individual communities autonomy in deciding what is best for their children.

FUSE appears to be hosting an organizational meeting tonight (go to their page for more information). The city of Germantown is hosting a town hall meeting Monday night at the Germantown Performing Arts Center.

MCS/SCS unification: Where's the plan?

Much has been made about the absence of a detailed plan that would govern the merger of the Memphis City Schools with the Shelby County Schools.

This isn't about the mandated plan that Republican governor Bill Haslam is now requiring the districts to come up with by Feb. 15, the day before early voting is scheduled to begin for the March 8 referendum to approve the MCS charter surrender.

But what about the Shelby County Schools' plans - either for special school district status or a contingency plan as the agency responsible for education countywide?

The case could be made that since the county alone bears the entire responsibility for educating all the children who live in that county, that the Shelby County Schools should already have some sort of contingency plan for if the MCS ever surrender its charter. It doesn't appear that such a plan exists.

But, as a reader pointed out in an e-mail to me today, the Shelby County Schools have not been compelled to explain, in detail, how the acquisition of special school district status would impact the Memphis City Schools. And on the anti-unification side, no one has been required to come up with a plan for anything.

This reader wrote:

... [H]as anyone demanded that he, Mr.  Pickler, submit a DETAILED PLAN on how this will affect the CITY SCHOOLS, CITY SCHOOL KIDS, CITY SCHOOL TEACHERS, other staff members and CITY SCHOOL FUNDING ???

Does the "bill" submitted in NASHVILLE demand that Shelby County Schools take 3 years to plan for a "special school district" before it can take effect ???

Did the new GOVERNOR demand that a DETAILED PLAN be submitted by Shelby County Schools on a "special school district", not just in the next 2 weeks but EVER ???

Did any of the 4 state senators, who are named in your article, that support this "bill", at anytime demand a DETAILED PLAN from Shelby County Schools BEFORE "special school district" status would be allowed ???..... OR..... Does "special school district" status AUTOMATICALLY go into effect if this bill is approved with ABSOLUTELY NO PLAN AT ALL ???

Chattanooga-Hamilton County merger has lessons

This August 1995 Education Week article about the merger of the urban, mostly black Chattanooga City Schools with the rural, mostly white Hamilton County Schools almost sounds like the debate going on here, only 16 years later.

If you were to replace the word "Chattanooga" with "Memphis" and switch "Shelby" for "Hamilton," the story and fears and possibilities are eerily similar.

Check it out here.

Report: MCS gets unfair rap for its spending

Because schools funding can be so complicated and includes so many disputes, we had to cut a section from Sunday's story on the funding issues that are driving the push for the March 8 referendum to transfer administrative control of Memphis public education to Shelby County. The Center for American Progress, a center-left policy think-tank that promotes proven teacher effectiveness models, earlier this month released a nationwide report that examined return on investment results for every school district in the country.

There is interesting data contained in the report, some of which informs the current schools debate here. You can check out the full report here, complete with cool interactive maps and lots of ways to sort data. Here are links to the MCS profile and to the SCS profile. Following a draft copy of what we considered including in Sunday's funding story:

According to CAP, Shelby County Schools is among the best in the state at keeping expenditures low while performing at the state's highest levels. For MCS, the study's findings contradict the prevailing notion that MCS's spending is out of control. One of CAP's researchers, Ulrich Boser, explained that the report included an "adjusted per-pupil expenditure" that reflected higher urban cost of living and the number of students with special needs (poverty, non-native English speakers, special education).

By that measure, using figures from 2007-08, MCS's per-pupil expenditures are merely 43rd out of 107 districts in the state, at an adjusted $6,094, not far off SCS at $5,849 (22nd of 107). Boser was not well-versed in the current dispute here, but emphasized that CAP's report recommends many best-practices for ways districts can spend their revenues in ways that enhance teaching and learning.

Studies are increasingly showing that lowering class sizes -- which means extra money for extra teachers -- is much less important than putting the right teachers with the right skills in the right classrooms, Boser said. "Class size can be important but just applying broad regulations on class size is like Soviet wheat farming," Boser said. "Highly effective teachers who raise student achievement could have more students in their classes."

Those are the sorts of reforms proponents of the March 8 referendum say are possible with a new countywide system.

But opponents believe funding will only get worse by adding 105,000 city students to a 45,000 suburban system rated as one of the state's strongest in returning good academic achievement on smaller taxpayer expenditures.

"We're one of the highest peroforming school systems in the state and Memphis City chools has unfortunately had severe struggles," Pickler said. "We intend to maintain our independence and autonomy and continue that legacy of excellence."

Jones sees it another way: "This community can get behind all children to advance education. There are great things happening in (city schools) that can be used in (suburban schools) and vice versa."

Mallott op-ed urges "YES" vote on referendum

On Dec. 20, Memphis City Schools Board member Betty Mallott voted against the move to surrender the city's special school district charter and ask voters to approve a referendum to transfer administrative control to Shelby County. But shortly after the holidays, when Shelby County Schools board chair and SCS superintendent John Aitken tried a last-ditch effort to get the MCS board to rescind, Mallott came out conclusively in the side of supporting the narrow 5-4 vote she had opposed.

By the time fellow board member Jeff Warren's proposed compromise plans came for a vote, Mallott had become a reliable ally of those four remaining board members who had voted to dissolve MCS. Now, in an op-ed piece for The Commercial Appeal, Mallott has put her cards on the table -- she's advising folks to vote FOR the March 8 referendum to transfer administrative control.

The prevailing issue, Mallott says, involves the threat of the suburbs' carving out their own special school district, which she and others believe could put MCS's current funding at risk and possibly lead to a huge increase in taxes in Memphis and huge decrease for those outside of Memphis. Read the column for yourself, but here is a key excerpt:

If passed, this vote will make the education of Memphis students, like all others in Shelby County, the responsibility of a countywide system with the funding equally shared among all Shelby Countians for all of its children. I can think of no more compelling reason for the MCS board to relinquish its charter than facing the serious decline of funding to educate the poorest children in the county. Tennessee law is clear that the MCS, as a municipal district, has the legal right to transfer the management of the district to the county schools.

Although the law is not specific about the process of merging the two systems, there is precedent that our districts will have time to plan for the changes. No action has to be taken quickly. The law provides for a variety of ways for the districts to work together for a smooth, orderly and well-timed unification process.
It is worth pointing out that Mallott spent her career in corporate leadership and organizational development and is well respected in that field.
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As the process for merging Shelby County's schools accelerates into action, we'll provide bonus coverage here at www.MemphisNewsBlog.com, with a particular focus on the 21-member transition team and the 23-member unified school board. Comment early and often. If you have any tips or suggestions you wish to share, contact Zack McMillin at zmcmillin@commercialappeal.com or 529-2564.

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