Muni School Bill Hits Snag in House

By Bill Dries

The bill to lift the statewide ban on creating municipal school districts will be back in the Tennessee House Education Committee next week after more last-minute developments including an amendment.

The Tennessee Senate passed the legislation without the amendment this week. A House amendment would mean a conference committee to reconcile the different versions late in the 2012 legislative session.

The House committee meets next on Tuesday, April 10, to take up the bill.

The lobbyist for the countywide school board took no position Tuesday, April 3, on the legislation.

And House Education Committee chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville delayed action on the bill for another week after announcing the late amendment.

Montgomery didn’t say what the amendment was and no amendment had been filed with the bill summary Tuesday evening.

Tony Thompson, representing the school board, told Montgomery, “You’re catching me off guard.”

“My client has not officially taken a position on that legislation,” he added.

“I was just shocked that the unified school district didn’t have a position on this,” said Covington Democrat Jimmy Naifeh, who has been the most vocal critic of the legislation. “That’s what they were supposed to be down there working on. I don’t know why the people that are on this unified board wouldn’t think about it. But most of all I don’t know why we continue to tell Memphis and Shelby County what they ought to be doing and let them work out their problems the way they should.”

With the school board taking no position, Ripley Democrat Craig Fitzhugh then proposed an amendment to make the bill apply only to Shelby County.

But Shelby County Republican Ron Lollar said such a change would cause constitutional problems for the legislation.

The Senate sponsor, Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville, has said the lifting of the statewide ban on the districts is intended to block any possible attempts to challenge in court the creation of municipal school districts specifically in Shelby County.

The 2011 Norris-Todd law setting the rules for local schools consolidation as well as municipal school districts applies only to Shelby County.

Still pending is an amendment Norris proposed last week to another bill that would make moot a Tennessee attorney general’s opinion saying no referendums on forming municipal school districts could be held before Shelby County’s two public school systems merge.

The amendment would permit referendums by the suburban municipalities later this year instead of waiting until January if the other legislation passes or August 2013 if it doesn’t.

The legal opinion forced suburban leaders to abandon plans for May 10 referendums on creating the districts and then moving to elect separate school boards for those districts in November with the boards hiring superintendents by the first of 2013.