Referendums in the Shelby County suburbs on the creation of municipal school districts remain off the table after the Tennessee House removed an amendment from a bill that would have set the stage for holding the referendums this year.
The legislation including the amendment had already been approved by the Tennessee Senate Monday.
The House action Wednesday, April 11, removed the amendment from the bill at least until the amendment goes through the House committee system. It was added on the House floor without committee approval. It prompted a flurry of questions from legislators in other parts of the state across party lines.
The legislators wanted to know whether cities and towns in their counties could move for referendums on the schools questions. And the uncertainty in some answers and conflicting answers at other points prompted House Education Committee chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville to detach the amendment from his bill.
The proposal goes back to the Senate.
Suburban leaders had scheduled the first of two referendums for May 10 on the general question of establishing the municipal school districts with plans for a second referendum in August on a half cent local option sales tax increase to fund the schools.
But the Tennessee Attorney General responded to a request for a legal opinion on the matter by saying the suburbs could make no move toward municipal school districts until Shelby County’s two public school systems were merged at the start of the 2013-2014 school year.
Based on that legal opinion, the Shelby County Election Commission declined to put the questions on a May special election ballot.
Still awaiting a vote in the state Senate is a similar bill approved by the House that has been successfully amended to apply a lifting of the statewide ban on municipal school districts only to Shelby County at least for now.
Legislators in the House Wednesday wanted to know how the bill they were considering was different from the other bill. And House sponsor Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga was unsure.
“The main difference is … it would make it where you could only have the referendum if the process were already underway,” McCormick said in an apparent reference to schools consolidation.
When the Senate version of the bill was amended last month, the sponsor of the amendment, Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville, said the effect would be to permit municipal school district referendums this year in Shelby County.
Shelby County Republican Ron Lollar said the legislation would not affect other parts of the state and “only allows for the voting of the municipalities.”
“We’ve got cities in Shelby County that have twice by legal decision or something been told they are not allowed to vote on an item,” he continued. “Let me tell you right now, whether it’s this bill or whether it’s the next bill, people who say they are for the people’s right to vote are trying to deny that right to vote.”
Montgomery then moved to detach the amendment by withdrawing his concurrence to it being attached to his bill and changing the concurrence to a motion to non-concur.
“There’s a lot of indecision in this room and a lot of concern about this amendment,” Montgomery said.