Commercial Appeal, By Sherri Drake Silence
April 14, 2010

A bill that would open the door for Shelby County Schools to become a special school district is further along in the Tennessee legislature than it has ever been.

For more than 15 years, Shelby school leaders have fought for the option to become a special school district, which would fix the county school system’s boundaries and authorize its elected school board to levy its own tax rate to fund schools.

Opponents of the bill say the measure would lead to a tax increase and that the bill’s supporters are using a false threat of school consolidation as a scare tactic.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, was recently passed by the House K-12 Education Subcommittee for the first time on a 6-4 vote after being killed year after year and will go before the House Education Committee today.

An amendment to the bill would limit the option to Shelby County. That could make it easier to pass.

“I’m very optimistic about our chances,” said Shelby school board chairman David Pickler. ” … We have perhaps the best opportunity for this bill to pass than we have had in the 12 years that I’ve been on the school board.”

The state has banned new special school districts since 1982. The bill would remove the prohibition and allow voters to decide whether Shelby schools should convert to a special district.

Last week, Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz sent a letter to the Shelby County delegation reminding them that the commission voted 9-2 to support a resolution opposing the special school district bill.

Ritz said supporters of the bill are trying to convince people in other parts of the state that Shelby schools are at risk for consolidation and need the bill for security.

The Metropolitan Government Charter Commission has taken consolidation of Memphis City and Shelby County schools off the table.

“They are using consolidation as a political argument for many things, and one of them is this,” Ritz said.

Memphis City Schools has also voiced concern over the special school district bill because of its potential negative financial impact.

If the House Education Committee approves the bill, it would then go before the full House. If the House and Senate both pass the bill, the issue could potentially be turned over to voters by November, Lollar said.

Pickler and Lollar said Shelby County taxpayers should have at least the option to vote on the issue.

Pickler said the suburban district could convert its status without hurting voters or Memphis City Schools.

“We believe that passage of this bill gives our district the greatest opportunity to ensure our ongoing independence and autonomy,” Pickler said.

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