As the Tennessee House education subcommittee was meeting in Nashville Wednesday, March 29, it was where most of those involved in the local schools reformation saga were focusing their attention.
And the center of their attention was a bill lifting the statewide ban on the creation of municipal school districts.
But the Senate education committee was meeting at the same time in Nashville and that’s where an anticipated amendment to put municipal school district referendums back on the ballot before the end of the year was added to a bill on school bullying.
State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville added the amendment that allows for referendums to form municipal school districts this year.
The bill was amended as committees in the House and Senate are preparing to close for the year in the legislature.
Word of the amendment came the same day six Shelby County Republican legislators sent a letter to countywide school board members pledging that they would not "sponsor, present or forward any legislation" on the transfer of school buildings in the current legislative session.
A bill that would require the school board to turn over such buildings to municipal school districts at no cost is pending in the legislature.
The amendment moving up the steps toward a municipal school district to sometime this year could reach the Senate and House floors for votes next week.
If passed, the Norris's amendment would make moot a legal opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office earlier this month that held the referenda five suburban towns and cities were moving toward 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 referenda on the ballot.
Passage of the amended bill into law 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’s amendment says the election of a school board for a municipal school district could not begin until a majority of voters 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 this month 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.”
The schools consolidation planning commission is drafting the structure of the consolidated school system to come and is scheduled to complete a draft plan by May or June and submit the plan to the countywide school board and state education officials for approval in August.
As word of the Nashville amendment spread, planning commission members debated a proposal by commissioner Chris Richards that would have supported lifting the statewide ban on municipal school districts in January 2013 but would have held backers of such school districts to making no moves toward the school districts until then.
Her resolution also would have said that realistically, no municipal school district could start operations until the 2014-2015 school year, a year after the schools mergers in Shelby County and a year after the target date suburban leaders have set for municipal school districts.
Richards also proposed the planning commission go on record as urging the countywide school board to extend the contract of county schools superintendent John Aitken through the summer of 2015 -- making him head of the school system for the first two school years of consolidation.
The planning commission voted down the first part of the resolution and Richards withdrew the rest saying it had "limited usefulness" without the first part.
Richards drafted her proposal before the latest moves from Nashville were known. But she said any attempt by the suburban leaders to start a municipal school district before August 2014 would be a "travesty" for parents and students of such a school system.
She also said the resolution was an attempt to acknowledge political "reality" even though municipal school districts are not part of the charge of the planning commission. Richards said the possible existence of such school districts is nevertheless a factor in decisions the group is making.
"I do think we need a chance to put our district together," she said.
Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald who is also on the commission questioned why the consolidation plan couldn't include the existence of municipal school districts.
"Why can't the planning commission plan acknowledge municipal school districts as part of the consolidation plan?" he asked.
Planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott said that wouldn't be a merged school system.
"That's two local education authorities (LEAs). Our charge is to merge those two," she said. "I can't for the life of me see how including six other LEAs in the plan merges the two. ... The municipalities don't need the support of the transition planning commission to form because that's legally afford them and we respect that ability."