Recently in State government Category

Jane Roberts has the story of the 23-member unified Shelby County Board of Education overwhelming support Tuesday of recommendations by both superintendents to deny 17 charter school applications based on financial hardship.

Citing a new state law, Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash and his staff laid out the "unsustainable" short-term and long-term financial burdens that would be created if the board approved the 12 charter schools that staff said provided strong enough amended applications (two more had inferior amended applications). Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken applied the same analysis to the two charter schools that submitted strong enough amended applications (one other was not strong enough).

Of the 14 rejected, nine were from the W.E.B. Du Bois Consortium led by Willie Herenton, the longtime former Memphis mayor and former MCS superintendent. He plans to appeal.

Board members were swayed by a presentation that showed the potentially crippling effects on MCS in particular if 14 new charters were allowed to operate next school year. The superintendents told the board that the charter application deadline is such that it had to act before close of business today or the charters with strong enough applications would have automatically been approved.

A great deal of the deliberations were spent by some MCS board representatives in particular chastising Cash's staff for not providing more or better numbers, despite a detailed presentation from chief financial officer Pam Anstey. Sara Lewis and Stephanie Gatewood said they needed color printouts with more visual presentation of numbers. When Tomeka Hart complained about not having more data by hitting Anstey with a fusillade of detailed requests, the CFO had responses ready within five minutes.

The short-term numbers would be grim enough, both superintendents said. Cash said approving 12 more charter schools would create a cost to MCS of an additional $26 million, meaning 400 positions would have to be eliminated. Aitken said costs for SCS would climb from $280,000 now to about $3.5 million -- the equivalent of roughly 50 positions.

Anstey pointed out that the long-term implications were even more stark -- approving charter schools at the rate of about 15 new ones per year combined with growth of existing charter schools would mean costs of $184,510,410 by 2016-17.

Herenton said he will appeal to the state. MCS and SCS are hoping the state will accept their claims of financial hardship, and board vice-chairman Jeffrey Warren suggested that the uncertainty about funding related to MCS merging with the county by 2013 could be another argument.

One reason for the vast increase in the charter school applications -- new state laws passed that severely loosened the restrictions on which students could be eligible to attend charter schools (essentially, every student is now eligible). MCS Dep. Supt. Irving Hamer had this to say: "This is an unfunded mandate that requires us to use base dollars and compromises the base infrastructure, compromises the base capacity to use resources for the operation of the main school system."

The two board members most sympathetic to charter schools were MCS representative Kenneth Whalum Jr. and new unified member Vanecia Kimbrow. Whalum said the arguments were another example of adults putting their own interests and that of the district's above students, and Kimbrow, who has been involved with charter schools, testified to the power of charter schools to give hope to children and their parents.

However, staff said that those existing charters Kimbrow extolled also would feel adverse consequences just like traditional schools if the district as a whole began cutting deeper into "the marrow" of infrastructure, as Cash put it.

The board now has five days to present evidence to the state of the financial hardship. Cash said his staff will be working through the Thanksgiving holiday and over the weekend getting it ready.

Hearing aids for children. Oh my!

 

NASHVILLE - The National Federation of Independent Business, which mostly represents smaller businesses, is one of the more conservative business groups and although officially non-partisan, provides key support for Republicans. But it may have overreached today with an email to lawmakers opposing a bipartisan bill requiring health insurance policies to cover hearing aids for children who need them.

The bill (HB761) ended up passing 82-12 after its supporters used words like  "threatening" and "offensive" to describe the email they received from NFIB-Tennessee. Members said it urged a "no" vote because NFIB sees it as a health-care mandate on business. "NFIB members strongly oppose all healthcare mandates because their collective impact has forced thousands of Tennessee small businesses, their employees and families to drop comprehensive coverage that protects them while facing catastrophic illnesses," according to the group's website.

But what really "disturbed" members - as Rep. Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, put it -- was the email's warning that NFIB might include their votes on the bill among a list of "key votes" of the 2011-12 legislative term to be distributed to the group's members at election time next year.

Sponsors of the bill said the new coverage is limited, paying for an initial hearing aid and then new ones once every three years up to age 18 but only if an audiologist or doctor certifies a child's hearing has significantly worsened. They said the benefit will add, at most, 2 cents to health insurance premiums. It goes into affect with policies issue or renewed after next Jan. 1.

The 26-minute floor debate opened a rare fissure among the newly dominant Republicans, with some of the House's most conservative members ending up voting against the bill -- while all Democrats and most of the other moderate and conservative Republicans voting in favor. Five of the 12 "no" votes are freshmen Republicans swept into office in last year's tea party-backed GOP tidal wave.

Three West Tennessee members voted against the bill: Reps. Mark White, R-Memphis, Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, and freshman Andy Holt, R-Dresden.  Itl now goes to the Senate, where Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said he expects passage.

House Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga (and a Shelby County native), told reporters after the floor session that the unrest revolves around the legislature's traditional opposition to "mandates." "There are dozens of bills each year where different groups want to come in and mandate things to go on to the insurance policies and we generally vote those mandates down because they are mandates that make additional costs for individuals and businesses. But about once every year or two we pick one out that we think is especially deserving, and all the business people I know feel like we ought to help little children be able to hear and have hearing aids. I think it's a very stringent process before we let a mandate come through like that but I think in this case we overwhelmingly  wanted that one to come through and that was reflected today. Certainly the NFIB has their opinion, as does dozens and hundreds of other special interest groups around here. Sometimes we go along with them and sometimes we don't. I think we're responding to our constituents instead of the special interests," McCormick said.

On the House floor, Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, the bill sponsor, said "I don't consider this a mandate. I consider this a humane right-thing-to-do piece of legislation for children. They said they're going to grade me on this legislation. I've got 62,000 people back home who grade me - mommas and daddies and children. I guarantee you that if I went to every one of my  businesses back in Sevier County and said here's what we're doing and the impact it will have on children, they would all sign off on this piece of legislation. I guarantee you they would."

Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, a State Farm insurance agent who backed the bill, said, "We put caps on this so it wouldn't become an outrageous benefit. This small amount of money will be able to be consumed in the premiums."

Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said he received a letter from the parents of a six-year-old boy in his district who said that all he wanted for Christmas was a new pair of hearing aids. Despite that, Lundberg said, it's a mandate and he's opposed to it. "Where is the line that we draw on what's a good mandate and what's not?"

One of the House's most conservative members, Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he's "profoundly anti-mandate...but occasionally something comes along that's the right thing to do." He said the cost savings from children being able to hear and learn would greatly exceed the costs of hearing aids. "Considering the email I that got which was offensive to me as well - as I'm sure it was offensive to my colleagues on the other side _ I think the most fitting thing we could do here today is vote this out of here 99 to zero," Shipley said.

Williams said the NFIB's message that it may use the vote as a "score" on on lawmakers disturbed him. "I really don't care what kind of score that any of these special interest groups give me.... I'm appalled that any special interest or lobbyist will try to tell us how to vote on any issue. I'm more interest in the grade I get from my constituents and the people of Tennessee and the families that have these children that can't hear."

Freshman Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, voted for the bill and called on his colleagues to have courage to do so as well. "To my colleagues in this august body, I want to draw a parallel for you. A number of you are fellow veterans. You know what it's like to be shot at. And as one of the poets of our time said, without fear, courage would be meaningless. I'm calling on you to have courage and vote for this bill. What it boils down to is, we are here to benefit the taxpayers of the state of Tennessee that sent us here. It costs less in the long run to give a child hearing aids so that they can learn how to be a productive citizen than it does to pay for the results of not allowing that to happen. Let me close again with a call for courage, in this case not the courage to stand in front of somebody shooting at you or land a burning airplane or any of those things we think of as demonstrating courage - but moral courage. I think this is the morally right thing to do and I support the bill fully."

Democratic Rep. Eddie Bass of Pulaski said lawmakers shouldn't fear special interest. groups. He thanked Montgomery for the legislation "as a small business owner" himself. "But I am going to say to the new people in here: I got this same threatening email from NFIB, and for anybody who's concerned about that, I got the same threatening letter last year -- both in a letter and verbally. I still voted my conscience and did what was right. I ran without their support because of it and I'm living proof that if you vote what's right, you don't need them."

See the news story here.

NASHVILLE - Tributes and accolades flowed in in honor of the late Tennessee governor Ned McWherter, who died Monday afternoon at age 80 following a months-long battle with cancer.

Choking back tears, two of the former governor's closest lieutenants remaining in the state legislature, House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, and Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, the former House speaker pro tem, recalled McWherter in a press conference and moments later in short tributes on the House floor.

Both said they spoke with McWherter almost every Sunday afternoon since his cancer was diagnosed late last fall. They recalled two of his most frequent homespun utterances as the longtime powerful speaker of the House from 1973 to 1986 and then as governor from 1987 to 1995.

McWherter borrowed the first from the late Northwest Tennessee congressman Robert "Fats" Everett, whom a young McWherter served as a driver during Everett's campaigns. It's inscribed on Everett's memorial on the Obion County Courthouse lawn in Union City:

"If a man didn't want to work, he oughtn't to have hired out."

I may be off a word or two on that but that's the gist of the words McWherter would deliver as House Speaker to restless members when floor sessions ran late into the evenings and the wee hours of the mornings.

Naifeh repeated the other story on the House floor Monday night:

"When he (McWherter) was campaigning for governor his first time, he went back to his hometown of Palmersville in Weakley County and he went into a little store, campaigning. He spoke to the two gentlemen on the front porch as he went in. When he came out, one of them said, 'Ned Ray, I've been seeing you on TV a whole lot lately.' He said 'Yes sir, I've spent a whole lot of money on it' - which he hated spending money on anything. But the man said, 'You know Ned Ray, you can go all across this state and see all these people and a whole lot of folks are going to think a lot of you -- but the crowd at your funeral's going to depend on the weather that day'."

Other tributes poured in from both sides of the political spectrum:

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who preceded McWherter as governor while McWherter was the powerful House speaker, paid tribute to McWherter on the Senate floor:

"When I became governor, Ned McWherter said, 'I'm going to help him, because if he succeeds, our state succeeds.' He was true to his word. That bipartisan spirit symbolized Ned's entire career. He was one of our state's finest public servants and a close friend. I will greatly miss him."

Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, whom McWherter helped persuade to run for governor the first time in 1994 - an unsuccessful run that Bredesen lost to Republican Don Sundquist:

"Ned McWherter was my mentor and my friend. I'd never met him, but after I'd run for mayor and lost, he called me up to the (Governor's) Residence. We sat in the office there, talked a little while, and then told me he was going to help me. I'm not sure I had a choice. What a life-changing experience for me! Over the years, we got to know each other better and better, and a genuine friendship grew. There were a number of years when we went hunting together with other friends in Texas, and I remember how much he enjoyed it; not hunting itself so much as sitting around the camp with friends and trading stories. Ned's life was a genuine American story, from shoe salesman to Governor, never losing his bearings on the journey. He was grounded in Tennessee; he loved the people of his state and they loved him back. I can't think of a finer epitaph."

Gov. Bill Haslam:

"This is a sad day for Tennessee. Governor McWherter was a true statesman who cared about this state and its citizens. He had a long and distinguished career in the legislative and executive branches as well as in business. I will always be grateful for his personal kindness to me and the wise advice he gave me during my first months in office. Crissy's and my thoughts and prayers go out to Mike and the entire McWherter family during this difficult time."

Former President Jimmy Carter:

"Ned McWherter was one of the most effective and finest public servants I have known. He was very helpful to me with his wise counsel while I was President and in the years after.Rosalynn and I are saddened to hear of his passing. We extend our sympathies to his family and many friends and to the people of Tennessee. Our nation has lost a great leader, and I a trusted friend."

Former President Bill Clinton:

"Hillary and I join his family and friends in grief over the passing of Governor Ned Ray McWherter, and in gratitude for his wonderful life. Ned was a great friend and a strong supporter to both of us. Just being around him always made me feel better. He calmed me when I was excited and lifted me up when I was down. His legendary ability to cut to the heart of a problem in a few blunt words was invaluable to me in the White House. Those of us who served as Governors with Ned knew that under his leadership, there was no state better run than Tennessee, because of his commitment to both continuous change and sensible management, and his uncanny blend of old-fashioned common sense and progressive values. He loved people, politics, and policy. He took his obligations seriously but always found something to laugh about. He was a bear of a man with a huge heart. I love him very much and I will miss him. I hope his memory will inspire young Tennesseans to follow in his footsteps. My thoughts are with his children, Michael and Linda, his grandchildren, and the people of Tennessee."

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville:

"It was an honor to have known him. He was truly a statesman. He cared deeply about this state and cared deeply about being speaker of the House. He gave a lot of credibility to the legislative branch and he was a man I truly admired."

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester, who served on Gov. McWherter's first campaign gubernatorial campaign, and who is also mourning the death of his son this weekend at the University of Arizona where he attended:

"I'm saddened by the loss of one of Tennessee's great Democratic leaders. I had the high honor of serving in his first campaign for governor and count him as one of my true political mentors. His gift of understanding what working people cared about and his vision for what Tennessee could become has inspired me my entire political career. Gov. McWherter was every man and he was bigger than life. We have a lost a great one."

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.:

"I join my fellow Tennesseans in mourning the loss of one of our state's finest and most beloved public servants," said Corker. "Ned was always upbeat, looking for the best in people and situations. He was incredibly kind to me when I came in as commissioner of finance. I never forgot that and continued to seek his counsel throughout my career, as recently as the past few weeks. He was a great friend to me, and I will miss him."

Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville:

"Few men have meant as much to as many Tennesseans as Gov. Ned Ray McWherter. This state has lost a true statesman and a true original. My heart and the hearts of all Tennesseans go out to the McWherter family today."

State Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson:

"Tennessee lost a true legend today in Governor Ned Ray McWherter. Governor McWherter left his legacy across our great state, and there is no doubt that we are better for his leadership, his vision and his compassion. Governor McWherter never hesitated to do what he believed was best for all Tennesseans, whether that was raising up our children through education reform, or creating jobs in rural areas through infrastructure improvements. Under his direction, Tennessee set a national standard for fiscal responsibility that endures today."

U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn.:

"Today is a sad day for all of Tennessee as we mourn the loss of Ned McWherter. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. Tennessee was blessed to have a true leader like Ned. I am grateful for his many contributions to this state and his legacy will forever be remembered."

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney:

"I am saddened by the news of Governor McWherter's passing. I believe all Tennesseans, regardless of political affiliation, appreciate his years of service to our state even after he served as Speaker of the House and Governor. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time."

State House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley:

"I was saddened to hear of the loss of my friend, former Speaker and Governor, Ned McWherter. My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time. Governor McWherter was a statesman of the first degree. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on for generations."

University of Memphis President Shirley Raines:

"Everyone associated with the University of Memphis is saddened by the death of Gov. Ned McWherter. His reputation as "The Education Governor" is nowhere more evident than the magnificent library on the U of M campus, which bears his name and honors his commitment to education in general and to the University of Memphis in particular. On behalf of all of us in the University of Memphis community, for whom his friendship has meant so much, I offer his family our sincerest condolences." /blockquote>

War on teachers?

 

 

 NASHVILLE - For weeks, Tennessee teachers have charged that some members of the Tennessee legislature have declared war on them - given the array of bills moving through the General Assembly to outlaw collective bargaining by teachers, weaken tenure, end payroll deduction of their local association dues and other measures they say are purely punitive.

 

A freshman Republican state senator reinforced the "war" metaphor in a Senate floor speech Monday evening - likening lawmakers to "warriors" who are going to "change radically" what he called "government schools" in Tennessee - and who are "resolved" to "bend public education to our awe -- or break it all to pieces."

 

The remarks by Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, raised eyebrows -- and not just for the phrase "government schools," the term for public schools frequently used by critics and opponents of public education. Summerville, an adjunct instructor of history at Austin Peay State University, was swept into office last November by the GOP tidal wave, defeating longtime Democratic legislator Doug Jackson of Dickson for the only Republican pick up in the Senate, which now has a 20-13 GOP majority. (Jackson was so confident of his re-election that he barely campaigned and went duck hunting in Canada just before the election.)

 

Summerville was speaking to the Senate Monday evening on his first bill to reach the floor - an innocuous bill requiring state universities to give "equal access" to any professional educators' organization if access to students in teacher-training programs is granted to any other professional educators' organization. That's one of the bills being pushed by the Professional Educators of Tennessee, the much smaller conservative alternative to the Tennessee Education Association. The bill was so uncontroversial that it won Senate approval without a single "no" vote.

 

After Summerville finished describing the bill, he turned to his party's broader education agenda and said:

 

"I want to talk directly to my fellow teachers. This General Assembly is going to change radically the project of public - of government schools in Tennessee. Our doors, our minds, our hearts are open to teachers. If teachers and us, we, differ, let's differ with intellectual honesty. Approach us and argue with us based on evidence. Bring to bear facts and reason on your arguments.

 

"But whatever you do, change is going to come. You trained in one world. You will retire in another because we're going to make public schools anew. I want all of you fellow teachers to join with me in this cause, and with this General Assembly. That choice is yours.But make no mistake, the final responsibility is ours and we are warriors. To borrow and adapt some lines from Shakespeare's King Henry V (sic): Now are we well resolved and by God's help and yours and noble sinews of our power, we will bend public education to our awe or break it all to pieces."

 

At the end of the Monday night session, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, addressed Summerville's remarks:

 

"The language that was used were things like 'warriors' and breaking things apart. This body works best when we work with people and not at people -- and in fact our education policy is best when we work with teachers as opposed to telling teachers here's what you're going to do. Our language up here does matter. It matters to people back home and it matters to me, and I certainly get concerned when I hear statements that don't seem to reflect the proper attitude that we should have in working with our constituents."

 

And oh by the way, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday named Rhee's ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, the state's new education commissioner. Huffman was most recently a top executive at Teach for America and has a background as an education lawyer -- which will come in handy if and when the lawsuits start to fly over the public schools situation here in Shelby County.

Here is our story on Huffman. His hiring is yet another signal from Haslam that he will forcefully back non-traditional approaches to public education. It also is another indication he plans for the state to take an active role in the future of education for Memphis students, rather than stay away for fear of catching blame if things don't work out or the reform process turns into a mess.

If schools consolidation her moves forward, it will be fascinating to see whether Haslam and Huffman, with their predilection for non-traditional approaches, will support making current Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken leader of a new consolidated system. As you may know, Aitken received a big contract extension, from 2013 to 2015, in part because SCS board members wanted to make it difficult for any future entity, whether a Memphis-controlled county school board or transition planning commission, to remove Aitken (some are not happy about it). Many people who know Aitken rave about him, but his career trajectory has followed a very traditional public-school path. Educated at Henderson State with a master's from the University of Memphis, Aitken was a teacher and then a principal before getting into administration just three years ago. Buying out Aitken would cost taxpayers $400,000, not including unused vacation and remaining sick days; he also would get a $70,000 per year pension.

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.

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.
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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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