Lawmakers to delay talk of special-district bill for a year

By Jane Roberts, Memphis Commercial Appeal
December 1, 2010

Authors of a bill that would clear the way for Shelby County Schools to gain special-district status have said they’ll delay the legislation a year if city and county school leaders promise to talk.

State Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said Tuesday that he will not introduce a bill in 2011 to create any new special school districts in Tennessee provided that all “efforts to consolidate the two systems” in Memphis and Shelby County cease, including the move to surrender the Memphis City Schools charter.

Norris, the Senate majority leader, received similar commitment from Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, the bill’s prospective co-author in the House.

“Everybody ought to just stand down and let things run their course,” Norris said.

His promise is good for one year, he said, adding that waiting longer would reduce the “creative tension” necessary for working out a compromise.

Until the MCS board meets and votes, there is no deal, said board president Freda Williams.

“I cannot make an agreement for the board,” she said. “That’s something the board would have to vote on.”

The MCS board is not scheduled to meet until Dec. 13, but a special meeting could be called before then.

David Pickler, chairman of the Shelby County School Board, praised Norris’ initiative.

“I think the olive branch Sen. Norris has laid down … is yet another example of the intent and the commitment that we have to work together to achieve a great result for all stakeholders in this process,” he said.

Pickler is trying to schedule a “high-level” meeting with the city and county mayors and both school board presidents and superintendents. And he hopes to meet with Williams today.

“We are definitely ready to go and to begin this conversation,” Pickler said. “… Our focus has always been about pursuing a long-term solution that accomplishes our objective, but at the same time protects the interests of Memphis City Schools.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said he would rather act as an intermediary between the sides than take a position.

“I think Senator Norris is taking the right approach,” he said. “The bottom line is letting the school systems work this out.”

Pickler has said his prime aim in pushing for special-district status is to solidify SCS boundaries, which would stave off consolidation.

But Williams says the city schools cannot sit idle if the county schools’ campaign to get special-district status might eventually lead to the right to levy taxes for its schools.

“The taxing authority is a real concern for us; that’s what precipitated the whole conversation,” she said. “That was the origin of the move to surrender the charter.”

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