By Richard Locker, Zack McMillin, Commercial Appeal
January 11, 2011

Memphis City Council members Myron Lowery and Shea Flinn are outraged that State Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville is proposing legislation that would require the permission of suburban voters to surrender the Memphis City Schools charter.

“They are saying Memphis does not ever have the right of self-determination without checking with the (other) municipalities first,” Flinn said. “It’s the tail wagging the dog to the extreme. The way we are doing education here is abnormal. It is, and should be, the county’s responsibility.”

Norris’ act, which he delayed filing until Wednesday, would consolidate state laws allowing a special school district to dissolve and transfer administrative control to the county with another statute outlining a year-long process for planning consolidation that must be approved by majorities of voters in both the special district and those in the county outside the special district.

In other words, for MCS to dissolve and be taken over by the county, a majority of voters in a suburban-only referendum as well as a majority of voters in a city-only referendum must approve it.

Council chairman Myron Lowery said he will ask council attorney Allan Wade to look into whether or not the council could circumvent Norris’ proposed legislation.

“I think that the senator is wrong in what he’s trying to do,” said Lowery. “This is clearly a case of trying to change the rules in the middle of the game and that is wrong.

“Everybody in Shelby County should be upset by this,” Lowery said. “It does nothing to unify this community, it only keeps us apart.”

Norris said he believes county voters deserve a voice in a process that would effectively bring schools’ consolidation.

Flinn said it is yet another example of the state and suburban municipalities giving different — and unequal — treatment to Memphis. Statutes are clear that counties have a constitutional responsibility to provide public education to all of its children, and Flinn said that Memphians deserve the opportunity, without outside interference, to vote to keep or dissolve MCS.

Flinn, who has also filed a petition for a referendum to dissolve MCS, said the state already has told the city it cannot reduce the funds it provides MCS.

“Now, not only are they saying we cannot reduce funds, we have to ask Germantown’s permission to reduce this tax burden?” Flinn said. “Again, this is not a consolidation, this is not a merger. This is a dissolution of Memphis City Schools system and what happens then is the county must take over its constitutional responsibility.”

Flinn added: “To give the county municipalities a veto is patently un-American and anti-Democratic. Are we also going to let Mississippi vote? How about Montana?”

The legislature took no action today on the Memphis schools showdown but both Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and the new House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said final approval of the bill Norris drafted could occur as quickly as Saturday — an extraordinarily swift action.

Norris delayed formal introduction of his bill because he said city and county school officials are debating the merger issue.

“The two school systems are still in negotiations,” Norris said after today’s opening session of the Senate. “I won’t file my bill until tomorrow to see where we are. Again, I’m trying to help facilitate what I understand are productive discussions between the two systems. That’s what the bill itself is designed to provide — some structure and a form for planning for proper resolution, including the people’s right to vote. I thought that’s what everybody wanted.”

But city schools board member Martavius Jones, who led the effort to surrender the charter, disagreed.

“I see it as attempt to obtain non-resident Memphis participation in a decision that by current state law only has to be approved by Memphis residents,” said city school board member Martavius Jones.

“Sen. Norris is well within his duty as a state senator to propose something like this, but it is disappointing that this attempt has been made when we have been operating under the current letter of the law.”

Jones says Norris has been creative in crafting possible legislation that will apply to very few school districts in the state. “It has the effect of pinpointing or designating Memphis but very few other districts.”

Fellow school board member Rev. Kenneth Whalum, who voted against surrendering the city schools charter, says Norris’ bill is on target. “It’s one of the most sensible and pragmatic legislative responses to date to this ill-advised reaction by five MCS Commissioners.”

Whalum has criticized board member Martavius Jones for a poorly written resolution to surrender the city schools charter. Whalum says the wording “leaves open all kinds of opportunities for county residents to insist on having a say in the matter.”

Norris, the most powerful Shelby County legislator given his party’s new dominance of both houses of the legislature, acknowledged that it’s legally possible for the General Assembly to give his bill final approval on Saturday, when the two chambers end this week’s organizational session and launch their regular session following Saturday’s inauguration of Gov.-elect Bill Haslam.

“Yes, it is possible and we want to keep all options open. But the most important thing is that there are fruitful discussions taking place and I’m hopeful there is progress between the Memphis City Schools and the Shelby County Schools systems,” Norris said.

It would be unusual for lawmakers to pass substantive legislation without routing it through the committee process — in this case the education committees of both the House and Senate.

But Harwell said she would be willing to expedite the legislation if it had the full backing of Republicans in the Shelby County legislative delegation. That standard is also a departure from past legislative policy, albeit informal and unofficial: that the full local delegation — members of both parties — support a local measure before its advancement is expedited.

She said she had spoken with Norris about the measure.

“I have talked to him briefly on the phone and I am very open to do anything I can to help our Republican legislators from Shelby County, who have a real serious issue on their hands” Harwell said. “So, I’m very open to anything he may need to do.”

Asked specifically whether passage could occur in the House as quickly as Saturday, she said, “If that’s what they feel like they need — but I would want the entire delegation to be united on that, the entire Republican delegation to be united on that.”


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