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VOL. 126 | NO. 22 | Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Shelby Democratic Legislators Without Details on Schools Legislation

By Bill Dries

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Republican state legislators from Shelby County didn’t show Tuesday for a meeting of the legislative delegation at City Hall with local elected leaders on the schools standoff.

And they wouldn’t divulge any details about changes they plan to make to fast tracked legislation that would lengthen the process for a consolidation of the county’s two public school systems and require the participation of county voters outside Memphis in any schools consolidation referendum.

A group of 10 Democratic legislators who did show up for the meeting Tuesday warned local leaders including Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. that whatever the new legislation looks like, it will emerge probably on Friday and it will be voted on Monday evening, the first day of the regular session of the legislature in the House and Senate.

“They are holding their cards very close to their chest,” said state Senator Beverly Marrero, chairman of the Shelby County delegation.

“We are at a loss as to how we have a legitimate discussion,” added state Representative Jeanne Richardson. “The amendments will make the bill.”

Marrero said Republican state Representative Curry Todd confirmed to her that the original proposal by state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville would be amended.

The meeting was called for Norris to explain his original proposal and give local leaders a chance to react to it.

Instead, the hour and a half session showed some of the legislators were just becoming familiar with the controversy that has dominated the local political horizon since Thanksgiving. The Democratic legislators also told the local leaders whatever bill emerges by Friday will probably pass.

Marrero likened opposing the legislation to “jumping in front of a moving train.”

The session came during another eventful day in the political timeline starting with a press conference in Nashville by Gov. Bill Haslam and acting state Education Commissioner Patrick Smith. They said the two superintendents of the school systems have until Feb. 15 by law to submit a transition plan outlining how the tenure, pay and other benefits of all teachers will be protected in a consolidation of the two school systems. Smith would have to sign off on the transition plan by March 8, the date of the citywide referendum.

Smith and Haslam also requested a broader transition plan by March 1 that is not required by state law.

Wharton said the transition plan involving teachers “doesn’t take a lot of genius” and predicted the two school systems could come up with a plan for Smith by Feb. 15, the day before early voting begins.

Wharton was encouraged that Haslam’s cautious entry into the political controversy didn’t try to challenge keeping the March 8 election date.

In a written statement, Norris said Haslam and Smith share his concerns about a transition to a consolidated school district. He did not share Wharton’s belief that it would be easy enough to meet the requirement before early voting starts.

“No plan worth executing that will achieve positive results for educating all of our children can possibly be written or formulated by Feb. 15 or March 1,” Norris wrote. “People are choosing to ignore the law. My legislation will call for a countywide, single majority vote.”

Norris’s statement, released after the delegation’s session at City Hall, makes no mention of how his proposal might be amended.

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