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VOL. 127 | NO. 56 | Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tenn. AG: No Referenda on Muni School Systems

By Bill Dries

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The Tennessee Attorney General says the move to municipal school districts cannot move forward with May or August ballot questions because they would violate the schools consolidation law.

The legal opinion from Attorney General Robert Cooper, issued Tuesday, March 20, in response to questions from Memphis State Senator Beverly Marrero reads “Tennessee law currently prohibits a municipality in Shelby County from taking any action to establish a new school system.”

Marrero specifically asked if a municipality can take “any formal action” including a referendum toward forming a municipal school district prior to the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year. That is when the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems takes effect.

Cooper cited state law governing the restriction on the formation of municipal and special school districts, saying the law “clearly articulates that these restrictions are only lifted ‘from and after the effective date of the transfer of the administration of the schools in the special school district to the county board of education.’”

“Thus a municipality in Shelby County can take no action, which would include the holding of a referendum, to establish a school district until from and after the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, assuming the transition is complete by that date,” Cooper wrote. “Indeed the delay in allowing a municipality to immediately pursue establishment of a new school system seems designed to provide time to both develop a transition plan and to allow those impacted to evaluate the plan developed before having the option to pursue establishment of a new school system.”

The legal opinion does not have the effect of a court ruling. But the Attorney General’s legal opinion has traditionally governed decisions by local Election Commissions across the state in deciding whether an item should go on the ballot and under what conditions.

Those legal opinions have historically been the same as legal opinions of the Tennessee Elections Coordinator who is the front line state legal advisor to election commissions across the state.

Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins differed in early 2011 from an earlier legal opinion by the Attorney General’s office on the March 2011 city referendum that surrendered the Memphis City Schools charter. Goins said Memphis City Council approval was required to put the item on the ballot. But a 2003 AG’s office opinion specifically said it wasn’t.

Goins changed his legal opinion several weeks later and advised the Shelby County Election Commission to put the item on the ballot.

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