Schools Legislation Readies for Big Stage After Committee Approval

By Bill Dries

If last week’s legislative committee sessions in Nashville are any indication, Democratic legislators from outside Memphis will be the most vocal critics of Monday’s floor votes on schools consolidation legislation.

That was the case last week as Memphis Democrats worked around the edges of the broader legislative difference of opinion that appears divided along party lines.

They didn’t even attempt amendments to the bills pushed by Republican legislators Mark Norris and Curry Todd, also members of the Shelby County legislative delegation.

It was Todd and Covington Democrat and former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh who mixed it up in several lively exchanges during Thursday’s session of the House Education Committee.

“Why do you feel that you need to push this piece of legislation so hard and fast at this time?” Naifeh asked Todd.

“I’m glad that we can pass something for the kids of Shelby County,” Todd replied.

“You’re not doing this for the kids of Shelby County,” Naifeh shot back.

Committee chairman Richard Montgomery of Clarksville shut down the exchange.

“I don’t have to talk,” Todd said. “Votes talk.”

Todd pointedly noted that as speaker Naifeh had helped repeatedly kill legislation pursued by Shelby County Schools for special district status. Naifeh said he still sees no need for the legislation.

“Why are we pushing this through like it has to be done today, like it has to be done Monday night?” Naifeh asked Todd. “Why don’t we do this in an orderly manner instead of running over every committee we have?”

“Why didn’t the Memphis City Schools system do it in an orderly fashion?” Todd replied.

Naifeh said Todd and Senate sponsor Mark Norris originally set out to stop the March 8 referendum.

“That’s not right. … The wrong pigeon flew in your window,” Todd replied. “We’ve been trying to make it an orderly process.”

“It appears we don’t want to educate the children in the city of Memphis,” Naifeh said. “It’s a political cause now by the two sponsors and others. It’s as much a civil rights issue now as it is anything else and, believe me, I’m going to be on the right side of the civil rights issue.”

Ripley Democrat Craig Fitzhugh tried to amend the bill to include appointments to a transition group by the Memphis mayor. The GOP majority on the committee quickly tabled it.

“We find ourselves intervening. My question is, ‘Why should we intervene’?” Fitzhugh asked. “Do we not think that the people of Memphis can handle their business? Or is it that we don’t think they would handle their business as we would have them handle it?”

Memphis City Schools board member Martavius Jones was the only elected official from Memphis in the audience or on the committee who specifically said the bill should be voted down.

And that wasn’t a unanimous opinion from the city schools.

Legislators also heard from Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken, who said he and MCS superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash endorse the bill’s three-year delay in carrying out a merger as a planning commission maps out its terms.

“There is time needed to effectively have a smooth transition. This bill provides that,” Aitken said. “Three years is a reasonable time.”

Cash was not at the committee session.