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VOL. 127 | NO. 63 | Friday, March 30, 2012

Bill Lifting Muni School Ban Advances

By Bill Dries

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A bill in the Tennessee Legislature to lift the statewide ban on creating municipal school districts is moving as the legislative session nears an end.

The House Education subcommittee approved the bill Wednesday, March 28, on a voice vote with the House Education Committee to consider the bill next week.

It was the last subcommittee session of the year.

The bill was approved last week by the Senate Education Committee and is awaiting action on the Senate floor possibly next week.

There were no amendments to the bill Wednesday in the subcommittee. The bill would not only lift the statewide ban but it would move up the start date for such school districts to Jan. 1, 2013.

That’s nine months before the merger date of Shelby County’s two public school systems, which is when the formation of municipal school districts in Shelby County can begin under terms of the Norris-Todd law the legislature passed last year. The 2011 law specifically governs the Shelby County schools consolidation process.

State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who was the sponsor of the 2011 law and is sponsor of the new bill, has said the bill is a way of stopping a legal challenge to the 2011 law by having it applied statewide.

House sponsor Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, acknowledged concerns lawmakers from other parts of the state might have about the implications of a law whose intent is to impact the Shelby County schools reformation process.

“It’s not as simple as declaring you want a new school system,” he said. “This is brought about certainly by the situation in Shelby County, but this does have statewide implications.”

The bill could still be amended to take in other more recent events in the local move to consolidation and a suburban set of municipal school districts.

Plans to hold a set of May 10 referenda in the suburbs on the question of forming municipal school districts were stopped because of a Tennessee attorney general’s legal opinion. The opinion said no such votes or any other preparations for municipal school districts can begin until the August 2013 start of the actual merger of the county’s two public school systems.

Suburban mayors are weighing an appeal to Shelby County Chancery Court of the Shelby County Election Commission decision the day after the opinion not to schedule the ballot questions.

So far, the bill would not affect the scrubbing of the May 10 referenda.

The subcommittee debate included a call by Memphis Democrat Lois DeBerry for a full hearing on the issue next week in committee that will include Memphis leaders as well as suburban Shelby County leaders.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald and Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman were present for the subcommittee session.

Meanwhile, other House Democrats from outside Shelby County remained the most vocal opponents of the legislation.

“What we’re doing here is involving ourselves in Shelby County’s business. … That is all we’re doing,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. “I just think it’s an improper message to use. It’s doing something that is a local thing.”

Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, agreed.

“We have no biz fooling around in Memphis and Shelby County business,” he said. “They don’t need us telling them what to do.”

The rhetoric at the subcommittee was tamer than last week’s sessions where Naifeh accused suburban leaders of wanting to form racially exclusive school districts for whites only.

But the larger controversies of the schools reformation process were still present, even those not affected by the legislation as it is presently drafted.

Shelby County Republican Ron Lollar countered Naifeh by saying the state is already involved in the issue with the attorney general’s legal opinion and its impact on suburban residents.

“They have been denied a right to vote twice by litigation and lawsuits,” he said.

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