MEMPHIS, TN - Republican state lawmakers in Nashville this week, are expected to try and block the merger of Memphis City and Shelby County schools. With the MCS charter surrender vote scheduled for March 8th, it's a race against the clock in what has become a political chess game full of strategic moves.
Memphis City Councilman Harold Collins says he and his colleagues are ready to do battle. Depending on what the Republican legislators do, if they try to pass legislation to stop the referendum, the city council on Tuesday, could take its own drastic action.
"We're going to wait and see what our attorneys advise us," Councilman Collins tells abc24.com. "But I do believe we'll have a spirited discussion about it. The people of Memphis deserve an opportunity to speak on this. I don't think any party, Republican or Democrat, should deny the people the right to vote."
The MCS charter, according to the resolution passed by the Memphis School Board on December 20th, can be dissolved in one of two ways: by a vote of the people, or by a vote of the Memphis City Council.
And the council already approved the surrender two weeks ago, making it effective March 21st. Council members post-dated the resolution, sponsored by Councilman Collins, to give city voters the real choice on March 8th.
Earlier this week, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey announced plans to prevent the people's vote, even suggesting the State of Tennessee should take over MCS.
"We can't keep doing things the way they've been done in the past," says Ramsey, "and expect different results. Of all the failing schools in the state, the majority of them are in the Memphis City Schools."
Ramsey's comments did not sit well with most on the city council.
"In the words of the Lt. Governor," says Council Chairman Myron Lowery, "what did he say when he was running for Governor? He'd give them the boot? Lt. Ramsey, we need to give you the boot. Stay out of our business."
Shelby County School Board Chairman David Pickler, keeping a close eye on Nashville, does not favor consolidation, especially if county voters have no say in the issue.
Never before in the history of school consolidation in Tennessee, he says, has a larger district forced its way into a smaller one. Not in Nashville. Or Chattanooga. Or Knoxville. In those cases, the city school systems had fewer students than the county systems and once merged, those districts had nowhere near the number of students or massive operating issues that Memphis and Shelby County schools do.
This is a first for the state. That's why Pickler is watching the events in the state legislature very carefully. If new laws fail to protect his district, the county school system is ready to go to court, if necessary, to halt the consolidation effort.
"We are pursuing all appropriate legal strategies," Pickler tells abc24.com. "And we'll be taking appropriate legal action, when in fact, our attorneys deem it to be the right time."
Politics and power are definitely at play here. So is economic racism, admits a reluctant Councilman Collins.
"People are being very cautious about the words we use," he says. "It is very clear there are groups of people who want to keep our school systems separate and potentially unequal, which is something that occurred in the past."
Suburban residents outside city limits make up 30-percent of Shelby County's population, yet they pay 40-percent of the taxes, a figure expected to increase over the next decade.
Those are suburban tax dollars the city school system, and its 105,000 students, need to survive.
Chairman Pickler insists that if the Shelby County School system gets special district status, making consolidation impossible, Memphis City Schools would still get suburban funding.
But city school leaders and city council members don't trust that promise.
"Isn't it ironic," says Councilman Collins, "at the moment of truth, you get to see what people are made of and what their definition of equality is. One of the things about our history is, it will repeat itself if you don't take the steps to prevent it."
The deadline for Memphis residents to register to vote is February 7th. Early voting begins February 16th. The special referendum is set for March 8th, barring any legal challenges.