It isn’t hard to get a debate going on the Shelby County Commission about the coming Shelby County schools merger and separate suburban school districts.
A majority of the 13-member body voted to file the second part of the Memphis federal court lawsuit over the connected issues. But there remains a vocal minority of four to five commissioners on both issues as well.
But when the commission considers the second of three readings Monday, Feb. 25, of an ordinance to enforce a county charter residency requirement on Memphis City Schools teachers who live outside Shelby County, it will be difficult for the commission to avoid having another debate about residency requirements.
The commission meets at 1:30 p.m. at the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, 160 N. Main St.
The ordinance would give teachers in what is now the city school system five years to move within Shelby County. It also grandfathers in any teachers hired before Sept. 1, 1986, when the residency provision in the home rule charter took effect.
Memphis City Schools has no residency requirement.
“I would caution everyone not to freak out,” Commissioner Chris Thomas said Wednesday in committee sessions where concerned teachers showed up.
Thomas and Commissioner Terry Roland plan to sponsor a charter change referendum ordinance that would propose amending the residency requirement for all county government employees out of the charter. If the ordinance is approved, it would go to Shelby County voters in 2014.
If the ordinance fails or voters defeat the ballot question, Thomas added, “There’s a group in Nashville that might help us.”
“I want to get rid of the residency requirement altogether,” Roland said. “I’m having to deal with the law in front of me. … We can change this. We can take the monkey off everyone’s back.”
But some commissioners believe county employees including school teachers should have to live within Shelby County.
Without such a requirement, Commissioner Walter Bailey said the result would have a “disastrous effect on the county.”
“I just don’t think it is fair,” he said. “Ultimately we have to impose more taxes on those of us who remain here.”
The residency issue crosses party lines on the commission with divisions among Democrats and Republicans.
Commissioner Steve Mulroy argues that the county is likely to get sued by a Memphis City Schools teacher or a group of teachers who live outside Shelby County.
Mulroy argued the issue is “the quality of teachers, not where they live.”
“We’re pulling the rug out from under them,” he added. “People need to know right now. They can’t have this in limbo.”
He proposed grandfathering in all teachers, which prompted more discussion among commissioners about whether school administrators should be grandfathered in as well.
The amendment didn’t have enough votes in committee. Mulroy could try again Monday when there could be several other alternatives proposed.
The Tennessee legislature was a common theme in committee sessions last week as commissioners discussed a delay in paying an additional $300,000 in legal fees from the schools lawsuit from its contingency fund.
Roland is the most vocal but not the only commissioner trying to block the payment and calling on the commission to drop its part of the lawsuit contesting municipal school districts.
“I think that this battle has been fought,” Roland said. “It appears that we are going to get municipal schools.”
The comment is a reference to pending legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly that would lift the statewide ban on the creation of special school districts including municipal school districts.
But commission Chairman Mike Ritz believes the legislation is not a lock to pass given the concerns some legislators expressed last year about the municipal schools district bill that applied only to Shelby County.
Some legislators in the Republican majority wanted assurances that the bill would not allow for the creation of such school districts in the areas they represent.
Mulroy argued the bulk of the commission’s legal bills have already been incurred.
“There’s nothing left for us to do but sit back and wait for the judge to rule,” he said.
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays still has before him two state laws governing municipal school districts being challenged by the commission.