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VOL. 126 | NO. 24 | Friday, February 04, 2011

State Legislators Look for Education on Schools Standoff

By Bill Dries

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Most members of the Tennessee Legislature are just now getting a crash course in the controversy that has dominated Memphis and Shelby County politics since Thanksgiving.

As the state House and Senate prepare for fast-tracked votes Monday evening in Nashville on schools consolidation legislation, they aren’t getting a lot of help from Democrats or Republicans in the Shelby County legislative delegation.

The bill by state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris keeps in place the March 8 citywide referendum on a surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter that would effectively consolidate the system with Shelby County Schools.

But if city voters approve a Memphis City Schools charter surrender in the March 8 referendum, the resulting consolidation would be put off for three years under terms of the bill.

And when and if consolidation did come, the state ban on the creation of new municipal school districts and special school districts would be lifted for Shelby County only.

The bill also creates a 21-member planning commission to work out a transition plan. Norris eliminated a provision for a second countywide referendum on whatever transition plan the group comes up with. However, state education officials would have to sign off on the transition plan.

It was the likelihood of legislation allowing special school district status for Shelby County Schools passing in the 2011 session that prompted the city schools board to vote Dec. 20 to surrender its charter.

But legislators from other parts of the state never would have known that if they had asked Shelby County Democrats or Republicans on the Senate Education Committee who approved the bill Wednesday.

Johnson City Republican Rusty Crowe asked Norris directly why MCS wants to surrender its charter.

“I don’t know,” he told Crowe. “I suggested in recent weeks that the better part of valor is to move forward. And quit talking about which stalking horse and which side prompted this action.”

Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate, the vice chairman of the committee, did mention special school district status. But it wasn’t in a way that was clear to anyone who hasn’t been following the controversy.

Neither Norris nor Tate mentioned the much discussed and disputed University of Memphis study that shows a county special school district would take away half of the county tax base MCS relies on for the bulk of its local funding.

Chattanooga Democrat Andy Berke was more on point than Tate. The Memphis schools standoff has garnered some publicity in Chattanooga because of the merger of Hamilton County and Chattanooga schools.

Berke leveled the most overt criticism on the Senate panel of the bill, saying delaying and linking consolidation to special school district status for the county school system was an “implicit threat.”

Norris denied any threat.

Norris, who was still making changes to the proposal during the committee session, originally said he would be willing to hold off a day on a committee vote.

Committee chairwoman Dolores Gresham of Somerville agreed saying it was a chance for not only legislators but leaders in Memphis and Shelby County to go over the bill.

It was Tate, however, who called for a vote, which was a 6-3 party-line vote.

Not everyone in the delegation agrees that the floor votes next week will be along party lines.

Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis disagreed at the delegation’s town hall meeting at City Hall earlier in the week with local elected leaders. Kyle believed it was possible that Republicans from urban areas might not vote along party lines.

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