This could be the week that the Tennessee Legislature decides the timing of the rise of suburban municipal school districts in Shelby County.
The issue is an amendment to a Senate bill on school bullying that would permit the suburbs to call referendums this year on forming such school districts.
A Tennessee attorney general’s opinion in March held the intent of the 2011 Norris-Todd law governing the terms of the schools merger was that the suburbs could make no move toward municipal school districts, including referendums, until after the merger in August 2013. The legal opinion prompted the Shelby County Election Commission to deny requests by several of the suburban cities to hold referendums on May 10.
The Senate version of the bill, which includes the amendment permitting the referendums this year, was sent to the House Thursday, April 19, as the start of the conference process to either reconcile the differences or kill the amendment.
The amendment is not included in the House version proposed by the chairman of the House Education Committee, Republican Richard Montgomery of Sevierville. He withdrew his concurrence on the municipal school districts referendum amendment earlier this month on the House floor.
That sent the measure to the Senate, which prompted Thursday’s decision to send its version to the House again.
Meanwhile, the schools consolidation planning commission considered on Thursday, April 19, but voted down a resolution that would have urged the Tennessee Legislature not to pass the bill.
Some members of the group drafting the blueprint for a consolidated school district favor the legislation, others are opposed to it and still others in both camps opposed the resolution saying it was either beyond the group’s responsibilities or would be misinterpreted.
Planning Commissioner Jim Boyd proposed the resolution saying the legislative amendment sponsored by Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville “undercuts the work of the transition planning commission.”
“The reality is we are being misrepresented by our legislators in Nashville,” Boyd added.
Planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott also said the work of the group has been “misrepresented” by some legislators from Shelby County as legislators from other parts of the state have questioned why it is necessary and whether it would apply to school systems in their districts.
Norris has specifically said the amendment would clarify what the planning commission’s job is and would make it easier for the planning commission by giving it “clarity” on how many students to form a school system for. He has also said the planning commission has asked for the clarification.
“The towns have asked the transition planning commission … whether they could participate in a unified school system sort of like state participation in the federal system,” Norris said in March when he introduced the amendment on the Senate floor. “The TPC hadn’t felt like it was appropriate for them to consider that because they don’t exist.”
Prescott has sent a letter to legislators saying the planning commission is making plans for a school system of 150,000 or so students with contingencies if the suburban towns and cities create municipal school districts. She also refuted the idea that the group is waiting on legislation to clarify its role.
Without mentioning Norris by name at the Thursday meeting of the group, she again refuted his interpretation.
“I believe we should be able to finish this work under the same legislation that we started,” she said. “It has been stated a number of times by some of the legislators that this bill was to help the TPC. I have spoken to that legislator and told that legislator it really does not help us.”
Planning commissioner and Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald argued voters in his city and the other suburban cities should have the opportunity to vote and to vote this year – not make a move after the county’s two public school systems are already consolidated.
McDonald said Norris, who cosponsored the 2011 law, did not intend for the suburbs to wait for the merger.
“We want the opportunity for our citizens to vote on this issue,” McDonald said. “That those municipalities which are the purest form of local government be given the opportunity to provide education to their children as they see fit.”
He characterized the resolution as opposition to the formation of municipal school districts and an attempt to stop the referendums.
Prescott denied that but said the characterization could stick.
“I don’t think that’s what we are saying,” she said. “But I’ve lived in the political arena enough to know that we do run the risk of being characterized in that way.”