Putting MCS Charter Issue On Ballot No Easy Task

Putting MCS Charter Issue On Ballot No Easy Task

By surrendering their charter, the Memphis City School Board fired the first shot in a school consolidation battle that is now a full-fledged war.
MEMPHIS, TN - The Memphis City School Board surrendered its charter.  The issue of school consolidation now goes to the voters.  Or does it?

A special election is supposed to take place within 45 to 60 days of the school board's vote.  That would put election day somewhere between February 4th and February 19th.  But a flurry of legal maneuvering is now underway to delay the vote in order to prevent MCS from merging with Shelby County Schools.

"There are lots of attorneys flipping through pages of state law and city and county charters right now," says Shelby County Election Chairman Bill Giannini.

The head of the election commisison says they're waiting for MCS to forward the charter resolution to them before an exact date can be set for the election.

But less than 24 hours after the city school board's historic vote to dissolve the district, lawmakers and attorneys are busy researching every legal option available to block the consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

MCS Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash, an opponent of relinquishing the system's charter, warned the city school board members Monday night, if they ignored the county's offer to hold off on becoming a special school district, and voted to surrender, they should be ready to do battle.

"This is just bad politics," says Cash.  "We give our word.  You take our word.  And if you don't trust the word, you're going to be in a street fight.  That's all I'm telling you.  It's a street fight.  It's not a good model for our children."

By Tuesday afternoon, the gloves were officially off.  Republican State Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown, filed a bill in Nashville that would transfer control of low-performing districts, like Memphis, to state control.   At least five other Shelby County Republicans on the House side, including Rep. Ron Lollar of Bartlett, plan to file similar legislation.

"I'm not sure the county school system has the ability to run a lot of these non-performing schools," Sen. Kelsey tells abc24.com.  "They certainly don't have experience doing it.  Now is the time to turn it over to people who have the expertise to do it."

Legislators return to Nashville to open the new session on January 11th.  The first week is filled with meetings and committee appointments, followed by a three week break.  They return February 7th and Sen. Kelsey believes it's possible to get the legislation through before Memphis voters head to the polls to decide the charter issue.

Stunned county school leaders, meanwhile, are faced with suddenly growing from 45,000 students to more than 150,000, if voters approve the charter surrender.  They're scrambling for answers on how to educate all those children while trying to find their own paths to stop the dissolution of MCS.

"We've got to assemble the best minds in education," says David Pickler, Chairman of the Shelby County School Board.  "We've got to assemble the best minds in legislation and the best minds in law."

Pickler confirms he's spoken with Rep. Lollar and State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris about pursuing the district's desire to seek special school district status, which triggered the MCS board's drastic option in the first place. 

The status, if enacted by state lawmakers, would freeze SCS boundaries to annexation and consolidation, but also changing funding for city schools.

"Nowhere else in the history of this country," says Pickler, "has there been such a rapid and forced consolidation of school districts.  We're not going to react emotionally.  We're going to look at all the issues and certainly we'll be having conversations with our legislators, and more importantly the community."

That leaves the election commission waiting to find out:  when will the vote happen?  Who will get to vote?  And who's going to pay the $1 million price tag?

"You've got so many different factions looking at this," says Chairman Giannini, "local, county and state.  They're all trying to find a solution, depending on what their agenda is."

The Memphis City School Board must approve the minutes to Monday night's meeting before the charter resolution can be submitted to the election commission. 

Commissioner Martavius Jones tells abc24.com he expects that to happen next Monday or Tuesday.  But sources say the board members who opposed surrendering the charter are trying to figure out a way to keep that from happening.

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