Schools Standoff Bill Clears House Committee

By Bill Dries

The state House education committee has approved the bill that would bar any consolidation of city and county schools until August 2013 and open the door to special school district status for Shelby County Schools.

The bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Curry Todd of Shelby County, faced vocal opposition from Democrats starting in a subcommittee hearing before the full committee session.

Covington Democrat and former House speaker Jimmy Naifeh challenged Todd’s motives and the fast track the Senate and House bills are on. Both chambers will vote on the legislation Monday, the first day of the working session in Nashville. It will be the first matter considered and if passed, the first bill on the desk of new Gov. Bill Haslam.

Naifeh conceded it didn’t violate the Legislature’s rules of procedure.

“Believe me, I checked. But it sure violates the spirit of the rules we have,” Naifeh told Todd, as he again confirmed that a Memphis referendum will still happen on March 8.

“So, what is the rush?” he asked Todd. “Why are we pushing this through like it has to be done today, like it has to be done Monday night? Why don’t we do this in an orderly manner instead of running over every committee we have?”

“Why didn’t the Memphis City Schools system do it in an orderly fashion?” Todd replied.

Naifeh said Todd and Senate sponsor Mark Norris originally set out to stop the referendum.

“That’s not right. … The wrong pigeon flew in your window,” Todd replied. “We’ve been trying to make it an orderly process.

“It appears we don’t want to educate the children in the city of Memphis. … It’s a political cause now by the two sponsors and others. It’s as much a civil rights issue now as it is anything else and, believe me, I’m going to be on the right side of the civil rights issue.”

Naifeh accused Republican lawmakers of “blindly following” Republicans in the Shelby County delegation on the issue.

The proposal also drew fire from Ripley Democrat Craig Fitzhugh who said it goes against Republican House speaker Beth Harwell’s principle of local government control with minimal state intervention.

“We find ourselves intervening. My question is, ‘Why should we intervene’?” Fitzhugh asked. “Do we not think that the people of Memphis can handle their business? Or is it that we don’t think they would handle their business as we would have them handle it?”

Naifeh and Todd clashed again during the full committee session.

“Why do you feel that you need to push this piece of legislation so hard and fast at this time?” Naifeh asked Todd. “Some people are blindly voting for you, which is their prerogative.”

“I’m glad that we can pass something for the kids of Shelby County,” Todd replied.

“You’re not doing this for the kids of Shelby County,” Naifeh shot back.

Legislators also heard from Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken, who said he and Memphis City Schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash endorse the bill’s three-year delay in carrying out a merger as a planning commission maps out its terms.

“There is time needed to effectively have a smooth transition. This bill provides that,” Aitken said. “Three years is a reasonable time.”

Cash was not at the committee session.

MCS board member Martavius Jones was, and he urged the committee to vote down the bill.

Aitken said he and Cash continue to work on a transition plan.