The Tennessee state Senate approved Monday evening the schools consolidation bill proposed by Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville on a 20-10 vote.
The proposal, including a two and a half year transition period and a provision allowing for special school district or municipal school district status when the school system consolidation takes effect, was debated for about an hour.
There were no further amendments to the bill despite discussion last week by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. who said he hoped the transition period could be shortened to a year and a half and include the ability of the Memphis mayor to make appointments to the committee that would set the terms of the merger.
Nothing in the bills would stop the March 8 citywide referendum that would effectively consolidate Shelby County’s two school systems. Early voting begins Feb. 16.
The debate was largely an exchange between Norris and Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.
“This is essentially a local dispute between your suburban governments and your largest city," Kyle said.
"Tonight we sit in judgment to help them settle that dispute. I guess we can tell them we are with state government and we’re here to help.”
“You have a situation brought about by some of what my colleague described," Norris responded. "But at the end of the day, it's an abdication of responsibility for the largest school system in the state.”
Both emphasized the unique nature of the scenario that began in December when the Memphis City Schools board voted to surrender its charter, moving the item to the ballot.
Kyle said the scenario is unique because of the unique nature of the MCS system and how it is funded. He also pointed to the Shelby County school board’s continuing pursuit of special school district status and how that would leave MCS without a large part of its property tax base.
The loss of that tax base has been hotly contested by Norris and opponents of the MCS charter surrender.
Norris said the lack of a plan for carrying out the schools merger is unique.
“It is a threat. It’s an absolute threat to the viability of the city of Memphis,” Kyle said.
“All we have every sought is an orderly and thoughtful plan,” Norris said. “Unification without unity defeats its purpose. If it’s unification you desire, then unity is preferred.”
The State House calendar committee meets Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. to scheduled the bill for a House vote. The House floor vote is expected to be scheduled for Thursday. If the bill is approved there, it goes to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam.