The Tennessee state House approved the schools consolidation bill Thursday on a 64-31 vote, now sending the legislation to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam.
The vote sets the stage for the next act in a drama that has dominated Memphis politics since Thanksgiving.
The Memphis City Council was to meet Thursday evening in special session to consider its next move. Watch The Daily News Online (www.memphisdailynews.com) for Web updates on the council meeting.
The bill the council will be responding to delays any consolidation of the Memphis City Schools with Shelby County schools for two and a half years.
It establishes a 21-member planning commission to work out the terms of the transition during that time. The members include appointees of the Shelby County mayor, the leaders of both school boards, the governor and the leaders of both houses of the legislature, but not the Memphis mayor.
The bill also lifts the ban for Shelby County only on the creation of special school districts and municipal school districts as a response by county opponents of consolidation to a countywide school system.
Everything in the legislation is triggered by a vote for a school system merger in the March 8 citywide referendum.
The House decision, which was divided along party lines, came after approximately two hours of debate and a set of 15 proposed amendments – all either tabled by the GOP majority or withdrawn by their Democratic sponsors. Most of the amendments were offered by Democratic legislators from Memphis who complained the legislation interfered in a local issue and that the transition committee established in the bill does not properly represent Memphians.
Memphis Democrat G.A. Hardaway sought to influence the GOP freshman in the chamber who gave the Republican party a larger majority after the Nov. 2 elections.
“This is what you promised, 22 of you freshman … at some point during your campaign. You spoke to the issue of local government, the closeness of government to the people,” Hardaway said. “This is one case, but it opens the door. Freshmen, either be true to the word you gave to those who sent you up here … or you might want to think about going home before they vote you out next time.”
Shelby County Republican Curry Todd was the sponsor of the legislation, which won state Senate approval Monday. He was also the only House member to speak in favor of the bill.
But the Republican majority in the 99-member chamber held with more than 60 votes to table every amendment.
Todd repeatedly denied the bill singled out Memphis City Schools with state requirements and a process not applicable to any other school system in the state. He countered that the MCS board that “wanted special treatment” by using a schools consolidation statute it never used before.
“Did they think out this situation? No,” Todd said. “They used an obscure statute that none of the others did.”
Covington Democrat and former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh argued that the legislation shouldn’t include a lifting of the ban on special school districts and municipal school districts if the concern was an orderly consolidation process.
“The real reason for this bill is so that they can lift the prohibition from 1982 (on special school districts) and the prohibition from 1998 (on municipal school districts) so that they can have these special school districts in Shelby County,” Naifeh said.
“He will deny that, I’m sure. But why else would they,” he added, referring to Todd. “This bill is not about education. Most of you know what it’s about.”
Todd said the Memphis mayor does not have appointments to the consolidation transition committee because MCS isn’t a municipal school district.
“The city of Memphis does not run the city school system,” Todd said. “They’re an autonomous body. … If they were run by the city of Memphis then they would have votes on this. We’re not changing the game plan in the middle of the game, they are.”
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said earlier in the week that he expected the House to approve the legislation without any amendments that would change the bill.
And he anticipated making his case against the bill or at least parts of the bill before Haslam.
“I don’t envy the position he’s going to be in,” Wharton said of Haslam. “I will, at the appropriate time, talk with him about that.”
Haslam is a Republican governor with Republican majorities and leadership in both houses of the legislature. A veto of the first bill fast-tracked to his desk by those majorities would not be a good start for the relationship.
Wharton wanted a shorter transition period of a year and a half. And he wanted to make some appointments to the planning commission. Haslam has told Wharton he won’t immediately sign the bill without giving city leaders the chance to talk to him about their problems with the legislation.
“That was the commitment we sought,” Wharton said. “That was the commitment he gave the (Memphis City) Council.”
Meanwhile, Shelby County commissioners moved Wednesday to hire a special outside legal counsel to represent them in any possible litigation that might follow the bill becoming law. The recommendation in committee sessions came after a spirited debate certain to be repeated at Monday’s meeting of and vote by the full commission.
Shelby County Attorney Kelly Rayne also told commissioners the state legislation stands a good chance of prevailing over any legal challenge. Those chances improved, she said, when the legislation was amended last week to take out any attempt to stop the citywide schools consolidation referendum.
“In my opinion, the removal of the (countywide) referendum requirement makes it such that I think it will – it may stand up to a court challenge,” Rayne said in response to a question from commissioner Mike Carpenter. “That helped the bill.”