Tennessee legislators from outside Shelby County got a look at where the Shelby County schools reformation discussion was in January this week on Capitol Hill in Nashville.
And they didn’t like the idea that their counties could be living with Shelby County rules.
Whether they could or not became a hotly contested point several times during the week.
The House Education Committee discussion came as it sent to the House floor an amended bill that has the same effect as the part of the Norris-Todd law passed last year dealing with municipal school districts.
The bill that began life a few months ago as a lifting of the municipal school districts ban statewide has been amended to apply only to Shelby County. It is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
The House sponsor, Republican leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, said it could apply eventually to other parts of the state. And legislators in those communities reacted immediately to the idea that their county school systems might have to split capital or other types of bond funding on the basis of average daily attendance (ADA) with a new municipal school district.
Their concern is that the county school systems in their parts of the state are larger than any municipal school district might be. In Shelby County it is the Memphis City Schools system that is larger than the county school system.
Knoxville Republican Bill Dunn pressed Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald and Jim Mitchell of Southern Educational Strategies LLC, the consultant to the suburbs on the municipal schools planning, on the boundaries for the municipal school districts.
“We have to educate the children within our community,” McDonald said. “But we can have agreements with other school systems to educate children across other boundaries. That has been a common practice in the state of Tennessee.”
“Forget the cooperative agreements,” Dunn replied. “In this area of the state, cooperation does not leap to the forefront of my brain. Yes, you can have cooperative agreements but I don’t see that a whole lot.”
McDonald said students living within the municipal boundaries of a suburban town or city that forms its own municipal school district would be the “primary responsibility” of the school system. But that is as far as Dunn got toward the definition of a municipal school district.
McDonald and Mitchell also pitched the idea that agreements could be worked out on the ownership of school buildings and their transfer with Mitchell quoting the series of SES reports. The reports include legal opinion that the school buildings are “held in trust for the children” and don’t belong to the countywide school system.
“I believe we can reach an agreement with a majority on the unified board on this,” McDonald said.
“Why don’t y’all just come up with a cooperative agreement without all this other stuff,” a frustrated Dunn said to McDonald and Mitchell. “You don’t have to respond. Please don’t.”
When the same concerns surfaced Wednesday, April 11, on the House floor over a municipal schools referendum amendment attached to another piece of legislation, Memphis Democrat G.A. Hardaway couldn’t resist.
“What a quandary,” he said. “I can either vote to open it up to the whole state or let you stick it to Memphis one more time. I’m inclined to let the whole state share this.”
The legislators wanted to know whether cities and towns in their counties could move for referendums on the schools questions. And the uncertainty in some answers and conflicting answers at other points prompted House Education Committee chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville to drop the amendment from his bill.
The proposal goes back to the Senate.
When the Senate version of the bill was amended last month, the sponsor of the amendment, Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville, said the effect would be to permit municipal school district referendums this year in Shelby County. Those referendums are now blocked by a Tennessee attorney general’s opinion saying no move toward municipal school districts can be held until the schools merger happens in August 2013.
Shelby County Republican Ron Lollar said the legislation would not affect other parts of the state and “only allows for the voting of the municipalities.”
“We’ve got cities in Shelby County that have twice by legal decision or something been told they are not allowed to vote on an item,” he continued. “Let me tell you right now, whether it’s this bill or whether it’s the next bill, people who say they are for the people’s right to vote are trying to deny that right to vote.”