Municipal Schools Bill Sails Through House, Senate

By Bill Dries

After much speculation about resistance from other parts of the state to lifting the statewide ban on special school districts statewide, the bill to do that sailed through the Tennessee House and Senate Monday, April 15.


The legislature sent a bill permitting municipal school districts in 29 cities including the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam Monday, April 15, for his signature.


The legislation was approved 70-24 in the House before winning approval in the Senate on a 24-5 vote.

In the Senate, Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis warned legislators from other parts of the state.

“This is a mistake – a mistake that you will see in your community,” he told them. “It’s a Balkanization of your county. What is the pressing need in your community to put you at risk of this happening? People in your district can do the same thing, may do the same thing and probably one day will do the same thing.”

Senate Republican leader and bill sponsor Mark Norris of Collierville framed the legislation in the context of the state’s move to charter schools and other education reforms.

“It is entirely in keeping with the education reform movement and removing an artificial barrier to innovation in education,” Norris said. “At the time the ban was put in place, back in the late 1990s, we did not have charter schools in this state. We did not have achievement school districts in this state. We did not have virtual schools in this state. Why in heaven’s name should any of us seek to forbid a municipality with authorization in its charter … from forming a municipal school system?”

Kyle and fellow Memphis Democrat Ophelia Ford were among the five “no” votes. Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate voted with the majority.

The most vocal opponents in the House were not Memphis Democrats but legislators from other parts of the state.

Republican state Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville expressed concern about what would happen if the suburban districts grew and could no longer take in students from outside the town or city limits forming the school district.

“That’s where the map starts falling apart,” he warned. “We’re going to see some problems down the road.”

Ripley Democrat Craig Fitzhugh urged House members to consider the impact on Shelby County.

“So goes Memphis, so goes my little town,” Fitzhugh said. “I don’t think it’s positive. I don’t think it will cause Shelby County to be unified.”

Memphis Democrats G.A. Hardaway and Antonio Parkinson stuck to questions for Republican sponsor Curry Todd of Collierville about whether the legislation affects the transfer of school buildings.

“This bill has nothing to do with school buildings,” Todd said several times.

Memphis Democrat Johnnie Turner raised the same questions.

“I’m dealing with unintended consequences,” she said.

The new law would start over a process all six towns and cities undertook in 2012, which included referendums in each to approve the formation of a municipal school district and a sales tax hike to provide the state-required minimum amount of funding for such a school district.

The sales tax hikes approved by voters in each of the towns and cities remain in place despite the Memphis federal court ruling that voided the referendum results on the question of forming municipal school districts.

In Lakeland, the sales tax hike is coupled with the town’s first ever property tax.

Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee ruled the results on the general ballot question were void because the 2012 state law allowing for municipal school districts with such a referendum violated the Tennessee Constitution because it only applied to Shelby County.

That prompted the new bill that passed Monday, which is applicable statewide.

The first step once the bill becomes law would be for the boards of aldermen in each of the six suburban towns and cities to pass resolutions seeking a special election with a referendum question on the ballot to form a municipal school district. If voters approve that, they then would hold school board elections, just as they did in 2012.

Suburban leaders have said previously that their goal is to have municipal school districts open and ready for students in the 2014-2015 school year with students in those towns and cities being part of the consolidated Shelby County Schools district for the 2013-2014 school year, the first of the merger.