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VOL. 126 | NO. 23 | Thursday, February 3, 2011

Norris Schools Surrender Bill Clears Senate Committee

By Bill Dries

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There would be no countywide referendum on school consolidation under an amended proposal on schools consolidation offered Wednesday by state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

But if Memphis voters approve a Memphis City Schools charter surrender in the March 8 referendum, the resulting consolidation would be put off for three years.

And when consolidation did come, the state ban on the creation of new municipal school districts and special school districts would be lifted for Shelby County only.

The amended bill that also creates a 21 member planning commission to work out a transition plan was approved by the state Senate education committee Wednesday on a 6-3 party line committee vote.

It was the likelihood of legislation allowing special school district status for Shelby County schools passing in the 2011 session that prompted the MCS board to vote Dec. 20 to surrender it charter.

The Dec. vote set in motion the citywide referendum to follow in 45-60 days under state law.

Norris’s proposal amends that state law which is one of several for consolidating school systems.

The state House education committee considers the bill Thursday afternoon. And votes by the full House and Senate are scheduled for Monday evening, the first day of the legislature’s regular session.

Norris was still tweaking the bill as the Senate committee session began Wednesday afternoon in Nashville. He noted it was groundhog day as he began outlining the details.

“We’ve spent a considerable amount of time since before dawn to find sponsors for this bill that wouldn’t be afraid of their shadows,” he said.

A countywide vote had been part of Norris’s proposal less than 24 hours earlier.

Norris portrayed his effort as one to repair a vague 1948 statute never before used.

“This is not an effort to block the scheduled referendum in Memphis,” he said. “This has never been designed to veto the Memphis vote nor deny Memphians the right to self determination. We’re trying to enhance the right of self determination, not deny it.”

Chattanooga Democrat Andy Berke, however, challenged Norris on the point.

“When we pass a bill that says they are going to wait three years before they do anything, I’m not sure how that enhances self determination,” Berke said. “Why is it that we have to wait three years?”

“Why is it that your county took three years?” Norris replied, referring to the merger of Chattanooga and Hamilton County schools. He also referred to the school system as “miniscule” compared to the Memphis school system.

“Here we are in Nashville trying to control Memphis,” Berke said. “That’s a serious issue. I want to make sure there is order and not chaos. The concern I have is that we’re creating more chaos for three years instead of order.”

Johnson City Republican Rusty Crowe asked Norris why MCS wants to surrender its charter.

Like other legislators from other parts of the state, Crowe is just finding out about the political controversy that has been the dominant topic of conversation in Memphis since Thanksgiving.

Norris made no mention of the special school district issue.

“I don’t know,” he told Crowe. “I suggested in recent weeks that the better part of valor is to move forward. And quit talking about which stalking horse and which side prompted this action.”

Berke however emphasized the link to special school district status in the most overt criticism of the legislation by any committee member including Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate.

Berke called the three year waiting period and lifting the ban on special school district status an “implicit threat” to backers of a consolidated school system.

Norris said the state’s hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for both of Shelby County’s public school systems gives it a role in setting the terms for a transition.

“To do otherwise threatens the unity and balance required by state law and it threatens the balance really required by common sense and common decency,” Norris said.

He also accused the MCS board of being “precipitous” and using a state law with no transition provisions as a “short cut.”

“They chose a game for which there are no rules,” Norris said of the MCS board. “But this isn’t a game. Our citizens and our children deserve better.”

He also likened the MCS charter surrender to a parent abandoning children on the doorstep of the county school system “like some kind of secret safe place.”

Meanwhile, as the committee session in Nashville adjourned, Memphis City Council chairman Myron Lowery announced the council will meet Thursday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. to weigh its options.

At the meeting, council members could consider moving up the effective date of a resolution the body passed last month effectively ratifying the Memphis City Schools board decision in December to surrender its charter.

Council members pushing the ratification believe it can trump any state legislation and immediately consolidate city and county schools without any kind of referendum.

Attorneys on all sides of the political question have their doubts about whether such a council action is legally sustainable or would be recognized as valid.

Thursday’s meeting is a continuation of the regular Tuesday session. When council members completed Tuesday’s agenda, they recessed the meeting instead of adjourning it in anticipation of the legislative committee action this week. The recess means longer public notice for a special meeting is not required.

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