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VOL. 127 | NO. 57 | Thursday, March 22, 2012

AG's Opinion Familiar Front In Schools Discussion

By Bill Dries

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The schools consolidation saga is moving into déjà vu territory with a new legal opinion from the Tennessee attorney general on a schools ballot question and legislation affecting the process moving in Nashville.

Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper says the move to municipal school districts separate from a countywide school system cannot move forward with May or August ballot questions because that would violate the 2011 law governing the Shelby County schools merger.

Based on that opinion, the Shelby County Election Commission voted Wednesday, March 21, to reject the requests for referenda on municipal school districts as "procedurally defective."

The legal opinion issued Tuesday, March 20, in response to questions from Memphis state Sen. 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 March 2011 referendum in which city voters surrendered the Memphis City Schools charter was in limbo as an earlier attorney general’s opinion clashed with the legal opinion of Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins. He changed his opinion and the question was put on the ballot.

Six days before this week’s legal opinion, state Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville moved a bill through the Senate Education Committee that would lift the ban on the creation of municipal school districts across the state effective Jan. 1, 2013.

The state law on schools consolidation and municipal school districts that became law in 2011, which Cooper referred to in his opinion, affects Shelby County specifically.

In the committee session, Norris said the legislation “removes any lingering doubt, if there is any in the minds of some people who talk about future litigation, about whether you can have municipal school districts in Tennessee.”

Norris also portrayed the legislation as a way to make municipal school districts a part of the work of a countywide consolidated school system being assembled by the schools consolidation transition planning commission.

“What this is really designed to do, by lifting the ban statewide, is to just sort of resolve that issue,” Norris said. “So people don’t hesitate to embrace it as part of the unified district or otherwise.”

To date, members of the planning commission and suburban leaders pursuing the municipal school districts have agreed that the municipal school districts would fall into the “otherwise” category.

The commission’s decentralized “multiple paths to autonomy” structure for the countywide school system to come, approved earlier this month, was pitched to suburban leaders as an alternative to municipal school districts. And it was rejected, at least for now, by those suburban leaders who said they prefer autonomous school systems with a feature a countywide school system could not provide – an independent elected school board for each of the municipal school districts.

The House and Senate versions of the bill were filed in January. The Senate bill was recalled from calendar committee Tuesday and referred to a committee that could send the bill to the Senate floor.

It was on the calendar for a House Education Subcommittee Wednesday.

The House sponsor, Chattanooga Republican Gerald McCormick, delayed action on the bill there for a week.

Democratic Chattanooga state Sen. Andy Berke questioned Norris closely about the impact of the bill on other parts of the state. Chattanooga once had a municipal school district before moving to a consolidated school system.

“I’ve learned that all of these bills are about Shelby County no matter what they say,” Berke told Norris. “I’m still trying to figure out why we are saying what we’ve already said. … I’m not sure why we need to pass a law that affects my county.”

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