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VOL. 126 | NO. 10 | Monday, January 17, 2011

MCS Board Meets, Norris Waits

By Bill Dries

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State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville defended his bill redefining the terms of school consolidation during his time in Memphis over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

Meanwhile, the Memphis City Schools board meets Tuesday evening for a discussion of the compromise plan offered by Shelby County schools leaders to slow the consolidation process for at least 18 months and require participation by county voters outside Memphis if there is a referendum.

Follow the meeting in real time with tweets @tdnpols and Web stories at The Daily News Online (www.memphisdailynews.com).

Norris’s legislation is similar to the compromise. It would include Shelby County voters outside Memphis in any school consolidation referendum and lengthen the process for such a merger to at least a year with a planning commission formulating a transition plan. The planning commission is a feature found in state law governing school system consolidations where the two school systems to be merged agree on the need to at least discuss the possibility.

Norris said his proposal will move forward in the legislature if there is no compromise between the two school systems.

“Our legislation is designed to show them the importance of that and that there are alternatives if they are unable to reach some kind of an agreement,” he said. “Structure and a plan and one that is done in accordance with law is essential for an orderly process. There’s too much at stake to rush into this.”

The bill passed the first of three votes in the House and the second of three votes in the Senate as of Friday afternoon.

“It will be referred to committee for action and we’ll reschedule it for a vote in the Senate after we return and reconvene,” Norris said in a written statement Friday.

He is referring to the three-week recess the legislature began after Saturday’s inauguration.

Norris also said the provision for including county voters outside Memphis in the compromise and his bill reflects existing state law – a viewpoint there are sharp disagreements on even among those who are urging both school systems to talk more.

“I understand people’s concerns,” Norris said. “That is the current law. That’s not something I wrote and that’s something that needs to be addressed.”

That’s not the position of Allan Wade, the attorney representing a citizens group whose lawsuit forced the calling of an MCS charter surrender vote.

Wade’s court settlement of the lawsuit against the Shelby County Election Commission specifies it will be a city-only vote. And Wade specifically required a written copy of the order by the end of the business day Friday anticipating possible final passage of SB 25 on Saturday.

Wade said the court order keeps the referendum a city-only election no matter what happens in the legislature.

“With the court order … it’s our position that the city voters have a vested right to vote on the question and that that right cannot be impaired by subsequent legislation,” he said.

Norris is aware of Wade’s position.

“I think other lawyers would disagree,” Norris said. “That won’t be an issue until it’s an issue. It won’t be an issue unless the legislation is adopted and becomes law. It will probably be for a court to decide if that becomes necessary.”

Meanwhile, Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz has requested a legal opinion from the Shelby County Attorney’s office on parts of the compromise the MCS board is to discuss.

The questions indicate that even if the MCS board accepts the Shelby County schools compromise Tuesday evening, other political players in the compromise will probably have significant concerns about the terms.

Among his concerns is a part of the plan that would require both school boards to accept the recommendations of an appointed planning committee.

“If either board refuses to vote to adopt the team recommendation, is that a violation of this agreement?” Ritz asked County Attorney Kelly Rayne. “How can MCS and SCS commit to a vote 18 months from now? I think you have told us we can’t commit to future votes.”

Ritz also questioned how a referendum could be authorized through the planning committee process. Under terms of the proposed compromise, the referendum would be a single countywide vote.

Ritz questioned that and whether the referendum could be a vote on anything more than a simple yes or no on the charter surrender.

“If the recommendation recommends MCS give up their charter, they can ask for a referendum on that matter but not any implementation processes put in the recommendation and only city voters would vote, correct?” he wrote.

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