General Assembly Weighs Schools Legislation

By Bill Dries

This promises to be a busy week in Nashville – a year and two months after the General Assembly last dealt with the terms of schools consolidation in Shelby County.

NORRIS

This week, two bills that would again change the terms of the local schools reformation saga could come to floor votes in the Tennessee House and Senate and go to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam.

As the Tennessee House Education subcommittee was meeting in Nashville Wednesday, March 29, it was where most of those involved were focusing their attention.

And the center of their attention was the bill lifting the statewide ban on the creation of municipal school districts effective January 2013, eight months ahead of the current lifting of the ban in Shelby County.

The bill moved quickly to the House Education Committee for action this week.

But the Senate Education Committee was meeting at the same time in Nashville, and that’s where an amendment to put municipal school district referendums back on the ballot before the end of the year was proposed by Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville. The Senate Education Committee approved it.

The amendment would make moot a March legal opinion from the Tennessee attorney general’s office that held the referendums five suburban towns and cities were considering holding in May could not happen until the August 2013 scheduled merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

The Shelby County Election Commission, based largely on that legal opinion, refused to put the May referendums on the ballot.

Norris tacked his amendment onto a year-old bill on school bullying.

“It’s designed to help facilitate that transition that’s already under way,” Norris said at first, as he talked of the ongoing move toward schools consolidation and the work of the schools consolidation planning commission.

“Without having a referendum before the ban is lifted at the end, they’ll never have the input or the guidance that’s needed for that transition planning commission to know – are they dealing with 150,000 students or are they dealing with something smaller.”

When Chattanooga Democrat Andy Berke said he was concerned about “balkanization” in Shelby County and elsewhere with the creation of such school districts, he became the first person in the nearly empty committee room to mention the attorney general’s legal opinion.

“I know we’ve had an attorney general’s opinion that has caused you to bring this,” Berke said to Norris. “But I have a little trouble locating my own position.”

“With the attorney general’s opinion, we realized we had to do something to make sure everybody’s ducks were in a row,” Norris responded.

Passage of the amendment would probably not come in enough time to restore a May 10 ballot date.

But suburban leaders had planned to have two ballot questions. The May 10 election was to be on the general question of forming a municipal school district. It was to be followed by an Aug. 2 referendum on a half-cent local option sales tax increase to provide the minimum local funding for such a school system that is required by state law.

Norris’ amendment says the election of a school board for a municipal school district could not begin until a majority of citizens vote “to raise local funds to support the proposed city school system.”

In his remarks on the pending bill on the statewide creation of municipal school districts, Norris has portrayed those efforts as attempts to improve the 2011 Norris-Todd bill, which became law and set new rules for the consolidation of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, including a longer waiting period.

But the attorney general’s opinion in March said no attempt at forming a municipal school district could be made until the schools merger took effect because that was the intent of the 2011 state law.

“Indeed the delay in allowing a municipality to immediately pursue establishment of a new school system seems designed to provide time to both develop a (consolidation) transition plan and to allow those impacted to evaluate the plan developed before having the option to pursue establishment of a new school system,” it states.

The schools consolidation planning commission is drafting the structure of the consolidated school system and is scheduled to complete the draft by May or June. The commission will then submit the plan in August to the countywide school board and state education officials for approval.