Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter and Memphis City Schools Commissioner Martavius Jones today delivered letters to senators in the Tennessee Legislature calling for fairness for Memphis regarding school issues.

Here is Commissioner Carpenter’s letter:

Today you will vote on Senate Bill 25 by Senator Norris, which purports to establish a transition process for the possible transfer of operations of Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools.  The bill is fatally flawed and as a representative of 209,000 Memphis and Shelby County residents, I would respectfully request that you vote “no.”

Establishing a transition process for the unification of the school systems seems sensible.  In fact, I have advocated since the beginning of this debate that a process be established between the two systems.  However, SB 25 only sets up a planning process, not a transition process.  If you read the legislation closely, it requires two and a half years of planning and at the end of the final year then the transfer is complete.  However, no portion of the plan can be implemented during the planning period.  If the plan calls for centralized food service, leasing rather than owning buses, transfer of teachers, etc., none of that can take effect until the end of the final year.  What that means is that opponents of unification and proponents of special school districts are incentivized not to negotiate in good faith to develop a workable plan for the unification of the systems.  Instead, they are encouraged to bide their time until the end of the planning period when the moratorium on special and municipal school districts is lifted.  This view of the legislation is bolstered by the House sponsor Representative Todd’s comments in last Wednesday’s Commercial Appeal:

“It lifts the prohibition on special school districts in Shelby County basically, and if they don’t come up with a plan that’s legitimate … then we can go forward with a bill on special school districts,” Todd said.

Senate Bill 25 could be dramatically improved by requiring a time period for planning and transition and not lifting the special school district moratorium until after transition is complete.  Additionally, it could be improved by guaranteeing adequate representation of Memphis residents on the planning commission.  Memphians are 70% of Shelby County residents, but grossly underrepresented on the planning commission as proposed.

You have heard, or will hear, that no plan exists, and that the sizes of the districts dictate that ample planning must occur.  No one disagrees.  The fact is, however, that Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools can sit down without legislation and agree to a process.  In fact, they could agree that operationally nothing would change for a specified period of time.  Of course, as long as efforts are being made by the Legislature to prevent or delay unification, then Shelby County Schools, which opposes unification, has no incentive to reach such an agreement.

You will also be told that the statute used by Memphis City Schools to surrender its charter has never before been utilized.  Frankly, I don’t see the relevance.  The statute is valid, has been on the books for many years and was followed to the letter by Memphis City Schools.  Now, the rules are being changed for Memphis in the middle of the game.

Finally, supporters of SB 25 have been successful at making the issue a partisan litmus test.  It shouldn’t be.  As a Republican County Commissioner, I was re-elected with 78% of the Republican Primary vote to represent a district that is 85% in the City of Memphis.  There are many Memphis Republicans who support unification.  There are others who are unsure, but want it to be a local decision.  Conversely, there are Democrats who oppose unification of the school systems.  What you are being asked to do is to wade into a local education issue and change the rules in midstream to benefit a 30% minority of the citizens of Shelby County.

Respectfully, I ask you again to oppose Senate Bill 25 or to consider amending the bill as I have suggested.

Thank you for your service to our state and for your thoughtful consideration of this matter.

Here is Commissioner Jones’s letter:

In a few hours you will be discussing Senate Bill 25 that was sponsored by Senator Mark Norris.  As the maker of the resolution to dissolve the Memphis City Schools, I felt it important that I provide some points of clarity omitted in Senator Norris’ remarks before the Senate Education Committee.

As you may know, Shelby County Schools has been seeking special school district status for more than a decade.  The resolution to surrender the charter of the Memphis City Schools special school district was introduced to prevent the secession of Shelby County Schools from Shelby County.  While Memphis does have its own special school district, Memphis is still a part of Shelby County and its citizens have greatly contributed to the growth, development, and maintenance of the county beyond the city limits and ALL school in the county.  I felt that a decision seeking special school district status should be a discussion conducted by all residents of Shelby County (because all residents contribute to operate and maintain ALL schools in Shelby County), not just those seven (7) board members of the Shelby County Schools elected by 28% of the population (non-Memphis residents of Shelby County).

TCA 49-2-107 Special school districts – Taxes states, “Any person owning property located in special school districts in this state which were created by a private act shall be required to pay such taxes as are levied by the private act creating or amending the school district.”  The existence of this law suggested to me that the creation of a special school districts for what is now Shelby County Schools would create a greater tax burden (an increase of nearly 11% to maintain current funding level) on residents of Memphis because this law does NOT require property owners to continue funding a school district that it formerly funded, i.e., Memphis City Schools.

In his statements before the committee, Senator Norris stated that he felt that the Memphis City School Board (MCS Board) was seeking “special treatment” when it tried to “invoke an obscure statutory provision” under TCA 49-2-502.  To the contrary, while I am not an attorney, in crafting the language of the resolution, I relied solely on laws as they are written at the time.  While not aware of all situation where transfers of administrations were effectuated, the difference in most of those situations (Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Covington) was the fact that they were municipal school districts and not special school districts.  I would contend that Senator Norris is indeed changing laws after a law has been acted upon because TCA 49-2-1002 (2)(d) Transfer of municipal or special district schools to county, reads, “The county board of education shall operate the schools of any town, city, or special school district transferred to them by authority of 49-2-502 and this section….”

I am not suggesting that all private sector practices are easily applied to the unification of two school systems, but I worked for Nashville-based First American (Bank) Corporation, which at the time was one of Tennessee’s largest banks.  The day after Memorial Day of 1999, AmSouth Bank announced that it was acquiring First American.  On the day that the acquisition was announced, there was no transition plan, but was developed after it was approved by the shareholders and the actual combination of disparate systems, policies, and practices took place over the next 12-18 months according to that transition plan.

I strongly urge you to vote against Senate Bill 25 because this is a local issue.  Senator Norris has suggested that state officials, namely the Governor, Speaker of the Senate and the Speaker of the House each have a representative on the transition committee based upon the state’s funding of Shelby County’s two school systems, but the state funds all school systems in Tennessee and I would contend that local officials in your respective areas are better situated to deal with your local issues.

I thank you for your indulgence and invite you to contact me directly at 901-596-1898 if I can provide further clarification.