By Lucas Johnson
MEMPHIS, Tenn.– Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said Friday that he and Gov. Bill Haslam will strive to work together despite the mayor’s strong opposition to Haslam’s signing of a bill delaying the Memphis school system’s attempted merger with Shelby County’s system.
Haslam, a Republican who took office last month, signed into law last week the legislation passed by the GOP-controlled legislature. Wharton told The Associated Press that the measure has “now imposed a barrier to the actual merger.”
However, Wharton said, he has talked to the governor since the law was signed and they have discussed other issues such as creating more jobs and establishing plans to help more students graduate from college.
Anyone who thinks their relationship has deteriorated “is quite naive and unrealistic. I just don’t operate that way,” the mayor said.
The law stipulates that any merger couldn’t take place for three years. Early voting on a referendum about the merger began this week.
Wharton said the state’s intervention added various steps that must be taken before the merger, not before the merger becomes operational.
“The legislation as it now stands is bad,” he said. “Presently, it is not at all clear as to whether the merger will even be consummated, because there’s this long transition period.”
Still, Wharton said he and Haslam will try to seek out common ground.
“Look, we’ve got to work on some other things together,” Wharton said he told Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor. “This is going to get ironed out in the court.”
The referendum was called after the Memphis City Schools board decided to give up its charter in a push to merge the large, troubled and predominantly black district with the more successful, smaller and predominantly white county system.
A unified school system would have 150,000 students, with the county in control. However, only voters who live in the city of Memphis would get to vote in the referendum.
Merger supporters say consolidation would preserve the city schools’ funding should Shelby County decide to seek special school district status.
The special status would freeze the boundaries in the suburbs around Memphis and prevent the city from expanding its tax base farther into the county.
Shelby County has fought against consolidation, saying county voters should have a vote and that a merger will over-stretch resources. Republican legislators have largely been cool to the proposed merger, and they now control both chambers of the legislature.