Schools Legislation Set for House Vote

By Bill Dries

The schools consolidation bill in the Tennessee Legislature and much of the political debate on the larger issue moves to the floor of the state House floor Thursday.

And if the legislation has the votes there, it will be the first bill to go to the desk of new Gov. Bill Haslam.

The proposal by Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville won easy approval by the state Senate Monday evening on a 20-10 vote.

Before the vote, Norris and Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis each focused on different parts of a political controversy that takes in much more scenery than that in the bill.

Kyle held up a map of Shelby County with a line marking the boundary between Memphis and the rest of the county.

“The folks who don’t live in the lined area … receive a benefit in taxation that the people in the lined area don’t get, because they don’t pay a supplement for city schools,” Kyle said. “All this is about … is having every citizen in Shelby County pay the same amount in taxes per person per school. … It’s not where you go to school, it’s how you pay for schools.”

Norris stuck to the Dec. 20 Memphis City Schools board vote to surrender its charter, which led to setting the March 8 date for the city referendum under a provision of state law never used before that makes no time for a transition plan. Without a state law to write in a delay for a transition plan, Norris argued the city schools would go out of business as soon as the March 8 election results are certified.

“You have a situation brought about by some of what my colleague described. But at the end of the day, it’s an abdication of responsibility for the largest school system in the state,” Norris said of the MCS board. “All we have ever sought is an orderly and thoughtful plan. Unification without unity defeats its purpose. If it’s unification you desire, then unity is preferred.”

Norris left intact a set of amendments he outlined last week in Senate committee that do not challenge the March 8 city referendum on the Memphis City Schools charter surrender.

The amendments delay any consolidation of city and Shelby County Schools until August 2012. In the two-and-a-half-year interim a 21-member planning commission would be appointed to lay out the terms of the merger.

And once the consolidation takes effect, it opens the door for the proposal of a private act to create a special school district in the county outside Memphis or a municipal school district made up of one or more of the county’s six suburban municipalities.

It was the possibility of special school district status for the county school system that prompted the decision by the MCS board to move for a charter surrender. The possibility became more likely, according to proponents as well as opponents of the status, when the Republican majority in the state House grew in the Nov. 2 legislative elections.

“When you ran for the Senate, is this what you came up here and decided you wanted to do?” Kyle asked Republicans in the Senate.

“This is essentially a local dispute between your suburban governments and your largest city. Tonight we sit in judgment to help them settle that dispute. I guess we can tell them we are with state government and we’re here to help.”

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. expressed hope last week that there would be more amendments to shorten the transition period to a year and a half and give the Memphis mayor some appointments to the transition committee.

The mayor has none in the current bill while the Shelby County mayor, leaders of both school boards, the governor and leaders of the state House and state Senate do.

Norris specifically ruled out a change, saying he believes Memphians will be at least a simple majority on the planning group.

“Let’s be candid. I cannot imagine a situation in which the mayor of the county in which the school system operates, not appointing citizens … from the city of Memphis,” Norris said. “That’s a local matter.”