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VOL. 126 | NO. 25 | Monday, February 07, 2011

City, State Leaders Hammer Out Schools Consolidation Bill

By Bill Dries

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The Tennessee Legislature begins its working session Monday evening with schools consolidation legislation the first bill on the floor for the state House and the state Senate. And if the legislation passes it will be the first bill to go to the desk of the new governor, Bill Haslam.

As the weekend began, the question was what would be in the bill by Monday evening.

Haslam and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. were talking directly. The subject was a compromise in the schools standoff that would change two key terms in the legislation proposed by state Senate majority leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

It was hard to tell if Norris was talking directly to Wharton, but Haslam and Norris have been talking.

“I’m not going to state that there’s optimism,” Wharton said. “I’m just not characterizing anything. We’re going to keep on talking and talking.”

Wharton also said Haslam has agreed that if the bills pass in their present form, he won’t sign the legislation without giving the city a chance to make its case. He didn’t give Wharton a time period.

Wharton wants two changes in the proposal. He wants the three-year waiting period for school system consolidation, if a merger is approved by Memphis voters in the March 8 referendum, to be shortened to a year and a half. And he wants to be able to appoint four or five citizens to the 20-member planning committee that would work out a transition plan during the waiting period.

The legislation now calls for the Shelby County mayor and the chairmen of the Memphis City Schools board and the Shelby County schools board to each appoint five members with another five appointed jointly by the leaders of the state House and Senate and the governor.

In return, the city would not object to the part of the bill that lifts the state’s ban on the creation of special and municipal school districts in Shelby County only whenever the consolidation of the two systems takes effect.

“There’s always concern about those provisions, which leave open the options of new municipal school districts and of course, special school districts,” Wharton said. “But just being pragmatic, there’s just no way in the world with the make up of the Legislature that anyone can get anything iron clad saying that never, never, never will the Legislature pass a law lifting the ban on special school districts.”

If some of the county’s suburban towns and cities tried to form municipal school districts or county school leaders continued to pursue special school district status, the Legislature would still have to approve private acts specifically for those districts even with the statewide ban lifted.

Memphis City Council members called off a vote late last week to ratify the Dec. 20 Memphis City Schools board decision to surrender its charter. Some council members believe such a ratification would cause an immediate consolidation of the school systems without a referendum. But that conclusion is not on firm legal ground.

Some on the council who had been pushing the ratification as a trump card urged holding it at least a bit longer with the assurance Haslam wouldn’t sign any legislation immediately.

Council member Jim Strickland said Norris’ legislation included some “huge concessions” including dropping a countywide referendum and not challenging the March 8 city referendum.

“There is no reason to pull the trigger at this point,” he said. “We would be taking it out of the hands of the voters. We would substitute our logic for the will of the people.”

Council member Janis Fullilove was one of several council members hesitant to place any trust in the Shelby County legislators pushing the bills in the House and Senate.

“Who made them God,” Fullilove said. “This is a democracy. We have a right to vote.”

The council agreed to call off any action for now with the ability to either call the council back into session Thursday or sooner if the Wharton-Haslam-Norris talks were to deteriorate or stagnate before Monday.

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