VOL. 127 | NO. 90 | Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Board Representation at Stake in Bill
By Bill Dries
In the legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly last week allowing suburban referendums this year on forming municipal school districts there was another part of the bill.
And it completes some important terms for the Nov. 6 school board elections that would follow the planned Aug. 2 referendums on forming school districts and levying a half- cent local option sales tax rate increase if voters approve both questions.
The individual school district plans being pursued by four of the six suburban towns and cities – Arlington, Bartlett, Germantown and Collierville – envision school districts that at least initially would take in students from beyond the borders of each of the municipalities.
The districts would include students from Memphis annexation reserve areas as well as students who live in the other municipalities.
But those areas would not have representation on the school boards. That’s because the students from outside a given town or city would attend that school district under a cooperative agreement that would have to be worked out with the countywide school board or the other municipal school districts that might be formed.
The amendment in the legislation allows the municipal school board seats up for election to be positions rather than district seats.
“With this law, it doesn’t require districts. It amended that,” said Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, who talked about the scenario for Bartlett’s board in particular. “We’re looking at five members and we’re looking at that being done in November.”
“They all have to be residents of the city of Bartlett for at least one year,” McDonald added, talking about the terms of running for the Bartlett school board.
Petitions for the school board races there and the other suburban towns and cities could start to be issued in June before the referendums.
All of the plans moving ahead hinge on Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signing the legislation into law or allowing it to become law next week without his signature. The bill reached Haslam’s desk Thursday, May 3. Haslam has said he is likely to sign the bill into law after he initially saying earlier the schools consolidation transition process needed time to work.
At press time Monday, the bill was still on his desk.
Haslam has vetoed one other bill since the legislature adjourned – his first veto since taking office as governor in 2011. And he let another become law without his signature. In each case, he expressed concerns about the legality of the proposals.
With the municipal schools legislation there is a different consideration. There is a fundamental disagreement about the intent of and the need for the legislation.
“He said he didn’t want any legislation to interfere with the transition process,” said Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville in an interview for the WKNO television program “Behind the Headlines.”
Norris sponsored the amendment for the referendums after a Tennessee Attorney General’s legal opinion derailed plans for May 10 referendums on municipal schools. The opinion held that no moves toward municipal school districts could happen under terms of the 2011 Norris-Todd law until the merger of the county’s two public school systems in August 2013.
“I can assure you that had we not addressed the questions that were raised by the Attorney General’s March opinion, there would very likely have been new litigation already by the municipalities who would have sued for their citizens’ right to vote,” Norris added. “That would have interfered with the transition planning process. That would have been interference. The path we chose facilitated that to the extent that it avoided litigation at this juncture.”
But the schools consolidation planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott has countered that the attempt to form municipal school districts and start classes at the same time the county’s two public school districts merge in August 2013 is interfering with the process not helping it.
“I believe we should be able to finish this work under the same legislation that we started,” Prescott said in April as the new legislation was making its way through both chambers with some difficulty. Ultimately resolving those problems with Norris’s fellow Republican legislators meant another amendment that made the provision apply only to Shelby County.
The planning commission voted down a resolution formally expressing its opposition to the municipal schools referendum amendment however. McDonald, who is on the planning commission, and others opposed its intent.
Prescott and others who agreed with the resolution’s intent expressed concern that it would be misinterpreted as a move to block suburban voters from ever voting on municipal school districts instead of moving toward referendums after the city and county school systems are merged.