By Zack McMillin, Memphis Commercial Appeal
January 11, 2011

State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris plans to introduce legislation at today’s opening session of the General Assembly that aims to stop Memphis City Schools from forcing consolidation with Shelby County Schools without consent of suburban voters.

The move comes just as state Atty. Gen. Robert Cooper Jr. issued an opinion Monday declaring that only voters within the city schools’ district could vote in a referendum transferring control of city schools to county schools.

Specifically, Cooper wrote, “All legal voters of the special school are eligible to vote in a referendum conducted pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. 49-2-502.”

Norris, hoping to avert a city vote on de facto consolidation and start what he believes can be a productive process toward better public schools, designed a bill that combines statutes outlining the orderly consolidation process (Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-1201 through 1208) with the statute that MCS’ board is relying upon in seeking to dissolve without input from noncity voters or officials (T.C.A. 49-2-502).

The act would “apply to any such transfer having its referendum results certified on or after the effective date of this act.”

The Collierville Republican called the plan by the MCS board to merge the systems a “hostile takeover” — either by simple charter surrender or a citywide referendum transferring administrative control to the county.

MCS board members have said the quest by county schools to become a special school district and freeze its boundaries forced them to act first.

The statutes that Norris is referring to provide a yearlong process for a county and any special school district that wants consolidation to set up a planning commission to study the process. After recommendations are made at public meetings, both school boards would then vote on whether to recommend voters approve it, and then voters residing in the special school district must approve the plan and those voters in the county outside the school district must approve the plan.

“It provides an orderly process,” Norris said. “In and of itself it doesn’t resolve anything, but the path the parties are on does not, either. Absent this legislation, you have a less orderly and ill-defined set of circumstances to deal with.”

But the bill is likely to draw a new round of criticisms from groups such as the Memphis NAACP, who on Monday joined a growing chorus of supporters pressing for a speedy vote in the surrender of the MCS charter.

Norris’ bill would affect “any proposed transfer that would increase student enrollment by 100 percent or more” in the system absorbing students from the dissolving district. Norris said that covers many other potential mergers in Tennessee, not just here, and said it also is a matter of best practices and his belief that bigger school systems are not necessarily better.

MCS has about 105,000 students and SCS has about 45,000.

For the bill to pass, it takes two readings, must go through committee and be approved on a third reading. That could be fast-tracked, along with a similar measure in the House, by the end of this week.

Norris wants it to pass “as soon as possible so if there is any benefit, it can be derived. At the same time, I understand the two school systems may be in discussions about how they may want to proceed and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their discussions.”

Norris acknowledged that the bill could trigger a lawsuit from those who believe MCS began the process to dissolve in late 2010 — before the legislature amended the statute in 2011. MCS board members voted 5-4 on Dec. 20 to surrender its charter, and on Dec. 22 notified the Shelby County Election Commission of its request for a citywide referendum to transfer administrative control of its schools to Shelby County.

The Election Commission last week declined to set a referendum date, citing an opinion received from State Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins that a 1961 private act requires the Memphis City Council to send the Election Commission a resolution also surrendering the charter.

City and county attorneys have said the private act actually allows surrender of the MCS charter with only a vote of the board and the council, and that state law is clear that a referendum asking voters to transfer administrative control does not require council action.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell called on Norris and other state legislators last week to fast-track legislation that would create an orderly transition process if voters were to approve the transfer of MCS schools to the county. But Norris prefers legislation that would require the planning process to occur before any vote.

He also is steadfast in his belief that county voters must be included, pointing out that even the current 49-2-502 statute MCS relies upon only says “majority” of voters and does not preclude including county voters.

The mayors “seem to be focusing on a post-referendum process and I think that’s sort of lopsided,” Norris said. “What would serve the community best is a process to plan before there is a referendum so people can make an educated decision when they vote.”

Norris also insists that fears by MCS board members of SCS freezing its suburban boundaries by winning special school district legislation are unfounded, calling any effort to repeal the current ban on new special districts as “unlikely.”

Luttrell said he has spoken to Norris but did not endorse all the specifics of the plan. He said he likes the orderly transition plan as outlined in the 49-2-1201 statute but believes the dual referenda provision could draw fierce reactions from city residents.

But Norris, who as a county commissioner worked with city politicians on potential new school system plans, hopes everyone “will embrace this opportunity.”

“Unification without unity is not unity at all,” Norris said. “We have people trying to have a hostile takeover. We need a measured and considered approach.”


Comments are closed.