VOL. 127 | NO. 59 | Monday, March 26, 2012
All Eyes Look to Nashville in Schools Debate
By Bill Dries
As Tennessee legislative committees in Nashville prepare to shut down for the year, there are still a few to meet this week.
And one of them on Wednesday, March 28, could be the next curve in the schools reformation saga.
That’s when the House Education Subcommittee meets to consider a bill that would lift the statewide moratorium on the creation of municipal school districts.
Those on all sides of the debate about municipal school districts in the Memphis suburbs will be watching closely for an amendment – like one that would require school buildings for such a district to be transferred to it from the countywide school system at no cost.
There weren’t any amendments like that at the end of last week in Nashville. And the bill that would do that outright hasn’t moved in either chamber. It’s not pending.
But the possibility fueled last week’s debate among countywide school board members about whether to take action to block that possibility.
Ultimately, the school board voted not to go there on a 9-9 tie.
“We’re reacting to intentions. Somebody has to be the adult in the room.”
–School board member Kenneth Whalum Jr.
The resolution, approved by the Shelby County Commission in February, would have required the school board to declare any school building to be sold or leased to be surplus and get “reasonable consideration” for its sale or lease as well as make a specific finding that the transfer would “not cause the county to incur additional school debt.”
It would have made current or future holders of the general obligation bonds used for school construction third-party beneficiaries.
The legislature could not pass a law impeding those contract rights.
“We’re reacting to intentions,” said school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., part of an interesting alignment on the six-month-old board that includes four of the seven appointees to the body, two former Memphis City Schools board members and four former Shelby County Schools board members. “Somebody has to be the adult in the room.”
“Nothing in this agreement stops municipalities from forming a school system – nothing,” countered board member Tomeka Hart.
School board member Patrice Robinson said it was the school board’s responsibility to keep control of the school system’s buildings.
“The municipalities are not in charge of this county,” she said, referring to the resolution as “an insurance policy.”
Board member Chris Caldwell, who abstained, said he could not “in good conscience” agree to the resolution. He also said the school board has other recourse on the issue.
“I hope that the municipalities come to the conclusion that the best thing for the community and their students are to be part of the Shelby County school system,” he said. “If they want to talk to me, I’ll talk to them. … But I don’t want anybody to twist this. I’m not a politician and this is political. I’m a public servant. I didn’t get on this to play politics.”
Meanwhile, members of the schools consolidation planning commission made no decision Thursday, March 22, on a call by planning commissioner and school board member David Pickler to push back the date of the school systems merger a year to the 2014-2015 school year.
Pickler was absent. Commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott said most on the body’s executive committee were opposed to any delay in the merger target date. Pickler could push for the full body to consider his proposal. Barring that, Prescott said, there might be some discussion but probably no vote by the commission on the matter.
“Each member that was there expressed that there would be no desire on their part for delay,” Prescott said. “I don’t anticipate that it would require a vote. … Our executive committee is about half of the planning commission.”
The two developments capped a turbulent week in the local schools reformation saga.
Suburban leaders are weighing their legal options after a legal opinion Tuesday, March 20, from Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper held that they could not start any efforts toward forming municipal school districts until the 2013 start of the schools merger. The legal opinion prompted the Shelby County Election Commission to bar a set of May 10 referenda several of the suburban communities had requested on the question of forming municipal school districts.
Prescott said the sentiment against delaying the merger was there even before Cooper’s legal opinion last week.
“I do not have any sense that it really had support widely on the planning commission,” she said. “It’s been mentioned in passing before.”