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VOL. 128 | NO. 33 | Monday, February 18, 2013

Merger Again Intersects With Nashville

By Bill Dries

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For a third consecutive year in Nashville, the Shelby County schools merger and the suburban reaction to it are on the calendar of the Tennessee legislature.

As the General Assembly finished its legislative week Thursday, Feb. 14, state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville introduced several bills, some of them captions to be added to as needed that would make suburban municipal school districts possible.

The legislation would remove a pending ruling from Memphis federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on the two existing state laws on municipal school districts as the make-or-break moment for moving ahead with the districts.

The most detailed bill of the group promises to be debated heavily by legislators across the state. It would lift the state’s ban on the creation of new local school systems “thereby avoiding artificial barriers to innovation.”

The bill would delete any trigger for the creation of municipal school districts, specifically a schools merger or the naming of a transition planning commission as part of a merger.

The bill’s rhetoric frames the change as a reaction to “the consolidation movement in public education.” It also aligns the creation of municipal school districts with the state’s move toward more charter schools and the creation of the state-run Achievement School District for low performing schools.

“Education reform and innovation will be further enhanced if the statewide prohibition against establishment of municipal school systems is abolished and local communities are, once again, granted the flexibility to assess and determine, on a case-by-case basis, the best path to great cost efficiencies and more effective student outcomes,” the bill reads.

Last year, legislators from other parts of the state repeatedly asked sponsors of the legislation Mays struck down in November if it would affect their districts. Several indicated they weren’t interested in seeing multiple school districts in rural counties with some recent history of suburban development where there is now a single county school system.

There were conflicting answers at first from several of the sponsors before all said the bill would only apply to Shelby County. Mays agreed in his ruling that the bill applied only to Shelby County and thus violated the Tennessee Constitution. The ruling voided all of the steps suburban leaders had taken, including two referendums in each of the six towns and cities earlier in the year.

A charter schools bill that made its debut in the House Education Sub-Committee on Feb. 12 offered more of an indication about how linking legislation to the schools merger might draw fire from other parts of the state as state reforms go statewide.

Germantown Republican state Rep. Mark White is sponsoring a bill that would permit charter school operators in Davidson County and Shelby County to apply directly to the state board of education instead of local school boards.

“These are the two (counties) with the most charter schools, the two with the most schools in the bottom 5 percent and the two with the most charter school applications per year,” White said. “Parents are becoming impatient because they fear the changes will come too late for their child.”

Suburban leaders discussed with the Shelby County Commission the option of creating charter school districts for their towns and cities as an alternative to municipal school districts. The private talks that started late last year were aimed at ending the federal litigation. All sides ended the talks formally this month.

Amy Frogge of the Metro Nashville school board said the bill is aimed at her and other board members who turned down a charter school operator who appealed to the state and won. The state threatened to take several million dollars in state funding from the school system.

“I represent a strong silent majority here in Nashville that is vehemently opposed to bills like this,” Frogge said as she talked of the relationship between local school systems and charter school operators. “This bill would undermine that relationship. It would create a shotgun marriage.”

The charter schools bill also drew fire from Athens Republican John Forgety.

“In my opinion, this bill would indeed circumvent the legally vested authority of local boards of education that are elected by the people of their district and it would relegate that authority from the local board to an appointed body,” he said referring to the appointed state board of education. “To me, to remove the authority, whether we agree with the local board or whether we disagree with the local board … is fundamentally wrong.”

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