Officials from Memphis City, Shelby County schools react to vote - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Officials from Memphis City, Shelby County schools react to vote

Memphis and Shelby County school officials say their focus must remain on the students in the wake of city residents voting to surrender the city schools charter. Memphis and Shelby County school officials say their focus must remain on the students in the wake of city residents voting to surrender the city schools charter.

By Kontji Anthony - bio | email

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - The day after 71 percent of Memphis voters decided to unify Memphis and Shelby County Schools, the tone was starkly different at news conferences for each school system Wednesday.

"The citizens of Memphis have spoken resoundedly," said Memphis City Schools Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash.

The vote to disband the larger city system and put the county in charge of 150,000 public school students ran 2-to-1 in favor when Tuesday's referendum results were combined with those of the early voting period.

The Shelby County Election Commission posted unofficial returns that show the vote was 47,812 in favor and 23,612 opposed. The vote is expected to be certified within three weeks.

"We all said the sun would come up and class would be in session," said Shelby County School Board Chairman David Pickler.  "I guess, unfortunately in the rain, the sun didn't come up."

Cash and Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken said they are already talking about what Cash calls the most complicated school merger in history.

"We should call out the best work that is being done in both school systems, merge and blend those practices," said Cash.

"I want to assure staffs in both systems we're going to do what's best for all of them," said Aitken.

Aitken said the state's two and a half-year transition period now kicks in.

"Memphis City Schools and Shelby schools will continue to operate independently of one another through the 2013 school year," said Aitken.

The school systems, county mayor and state lawmakers will first appoint a 25-member transition team.

Pickler said he hopes an audit of both school systems will follow.  He was vague about his original mission to create a special school district, which could eventually re-separate the school systems.

"I think you raised an interesting point, but we're going to deal with the law as the legislature passed it," said Pickler.

Cash said MCS needs closure, and the City of Memphis must pay the millions it owes city schools over the last three years.

"We need the money and we need it now," said Cash.

Cash's contract is also up in a year and a half.

"Been getting offers coming to me, but I would like to say in this work," he said.

Both Cash and Pickler said they will need to hire a series of outside help to oversee the merger.  Cash will recommend closing up to a dozen under-enrolled and under-performing schools.

Tuesday's vote was preceded by months of discussion that at times was divisive and contentious.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said in a statement Wednesday that it's time for city and county leaders to come together to develop a plan to create a unified school district.

"There are a number of issues to be considered, but I believe the people of Memphis and Shelby County will get the job done," Haslam said.

Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Haslam said the state Department of Education is ready to help in any way it can.

Meanwhile, experts said a massive transition and a series of lawsuits are the only way to clarify how the school systems should move forward.

"Lawsuits have been filed," said MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson.  "I anticipate counter-lawsuits will be filed, and even more lawsuits."

Hopson said the lawsuits are inevitable.

"We feel very strongly about the arguments that were put in that lawsuit," said Hopson.  "We feel very strongly that the constitutional rights of the children of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools have been compromised and we will be pressing forward with those lawsuits."

Pickler said a smaller system absorbing a larger system denies a proper education for all.

"Our legal counsel has advised us that with the passage of the referendum, House Bill 51 and Senate Bill 25 go into effect today," said Aitken.

County schools plan to proceed under the state's transition rules.  They never acknowledged the Memphis City Council action to merge schools, which would give the Shelby County Commission control over the transition.

"They city council also took action that purported to dissolve the board, schools before then, but all those issues will ultimately be fleshed out in court," said Hopson.

Hopson also said a judge might have to decide what happens to the $78 million the City of Memphis is required to pay city schools each year.

"I think there will be some arguments and discussions that Memphis and Shelby County has demonstrated they can pay what the commission pays plus the $78 million and that number would have to be considered," said Hopson.  "But ultimately, we just don't know at this time."


Quotes from school board news conferences:

John Aitken, Shelby County Schools Superintendent
"Let's continue to focus on the kids and do what we do every day.  I want to assure staffs in both systems we're going to do what's best for all of them as we move forward and let the transition committee guide our work as we move forward."

Dr. Kriner Cash, MCS Superintendent
"I want to thank so very heartily and so warmly all of our teachers, all of our staff, all of our students, our parents and community members who have continued to be professional."

"It is extremely critical that the children of Memphis City Schools receive the payment that the city owes them this year.  This year. We cannot operate and close the budget gap that is extraordinary for us.  It is approaching 100 million dollars."

Stephanie Gatewood, MCS Board Commissioner
"The voters have spoken and they clearly have stated they want one system.  And this is the opportunity to ensure that your voice is heard in that system."

Tomeka Hart, MCS Board Commissioner
"I think our best days are truly ahead of us.  It is time for us to use this opportunity now."

Martavius Jones, MCS Board Commissioner and author of charter surrender
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  The decision has been made and now it is up to us as adults to make sure that in all the work we do moving forward, that we keep the best interest of all children first and foremost in all of our actions."

Betty Mallot, MCS Board Commissioner

"We must try to form a united effort among all grownups so that children are not left in the midst of controversy."

David Pickler, Shelby County Schools Board Chairman
"We all said the sun would come up and class would be in session.  I guess unfortunately in the rain the sun didn't come up."

"The work of this committee is going to be monumental because you're looking at the task of putting together a plan that would create the 16th largest school system in America. It's ne'er been done. You've never had a situation where a smaller district has had to absorb a district of this size."

Copyright 2011 WMC-TV. All rights reserved.  The AP contributed to this report.

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