Muni School District Votes on Hold

By Bill Dries

At week’s end, the move to municipal school districts had slowed for a possible pit stop in Shelby County Chancery Court.


And efforts in the Tennessee Legislature to check a possible legal challenge of the state law that allows the suburban school districts specifically in Shelby County encountered some vocal non-Memphis resistance in the House Education Subcommittee.

A delay in the suburbs march to a set of May 10 ballot questions on forming their own school districts seemed inevitable no matter which course suburban mayors chose.

The decision Wednesday, March 21, by the Shelby County Election Commission to reject the request for the special elections promises to have a ripple effect.

Suburban leaders were already on the tight timeline in their effort to move toward municipal school districts. They wanted May 10 referenda on the general question of forming a municipal school district to be able to hold elections in November for school boards to govern the school districts. That was to meet a goal of each municipal school district hiring its superintendent by the start of 2013.

Early voting in advance of a May 10 election day would have started in April with a Chancery Court decision unlikely by then if a lawsuit is filed.

State Attorney General Bob Cooper opined there could be no referendum to form a municipal school district before the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems at the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

Attorney John Ryder advised the Election Commission that the referenda requests were “procedurally defective.”

“According to the attorney general, those requests cannot be made until the transfer of administration of the schools is complete. That would be a procedural requirement,” Ryder said. “Based on what we are being told by the (state elections) coordinator and by the attorney general, we would conclude that the request did not meet all the procedural requirements to place it on the ballot.”

Meanwhile, former state House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh went after the bill that would lift the statewide moratorium on the formation of municipal school districts.

“We shouldn’t have more than 95 school districts in this state anyway,” said the Covington Democrat in a Wednesday committee session in Nashville. “This is just something that we’re going in the wrong direction on. It’s all about what happened at the beginning of session last year.”

State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville is the Senate sponsor of the bill as he was of last year’s Norris-Todd bill that became the law governing the consolidation of Shelby County’s two public school systems. The 2011 law also set the conditions for forming municipal school districts in the suburbs.

“I hope they’re proud of what they did,” Naifeh said of Norris and House sponsor Curry Todd of Shelby County. “The only thing they were doing with that bill was segregation. … This is to allow those four or five towns in Shelby County to be able to form their white school districts.”

Todd is not the House sponsor of the pending legislation. It is being sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Gerald McCormick who is a Germantown High School alum.

McCormick delayed the bill for a week.

Norris said lifting the statewide moratorium on municipal school districts is to remove “any lingering doubts … about future litigation about whether you can have municipal school districts in Tennessee.”

In the March 14 appearance before the Senate Education Committee, Norris also portrayed the legislation as needed to possibly blend the municipal school districts into a consolidated school district.

“Some hope that municipal school districts can also be incorporated into the new unified school district in one form or fashion or another,” he said. “Some of the municipalities have sought the opportunity to participate in the transition planning process.”

This week’s legal opinion from Cooper, meanwhile, makes a point several on the schools consolidation planning commission have been making with much less impact as the suburbs moved swiftly toward election day until this week.

“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,” Cooper wrote in the legal opinion.

The planning commission began holding a series of “listening sessions” at the end of January to gauge public opinion and take suggestions on what the consolidated school system should include or exclude.

The first session was at Arlington High School. There and in other suburban sessions, the commissioners encountered citizens who wanted nothing to do with any schools consolidation plan the commission might come up with. Most wouldn’t even make suggestions about what a hypothetical merged school system should include.