By Bill Dries,
January 12, 2011

Shelby County Commissioners began the once-a-decade redistricting process divided on whether they should include among their tasks putting together a set of district lines for a countywide school board including Memphis.

The ad hoc committee session was one of several fronts in the school standoff that has accelerated with the opening of the Tennessee legislature’s session in Nashville.

Democratic Commissioner Walter Bailey, chairman of the committee, said he would prefer to wait. And Republican commissioners opposed to a consolidation of the county’s two public school systems agreed with him.

County Commission chairman Sidney Chism and others, however, said the commission should begin coming up with a general outline of what a countywide school board would look like now in case there is a referendum and a merger is approved.

“Get ready for it,” Chism said, adding that to not have a plan and have a county school board that includes Memphis without representation for Memphis would be “taxation without representation.”

The committee took no vote and no motion was made on setting that as a priority. But a motion could come at later meetings of the group, which is still awaiting U.S. Census data that comes to counties across the state through state government.

Shelby County schools superintendent John Aitken attended the morning committee meeting Downtown. As he left, he confirmed renewed discussions between Memphis City Schools officials and his school system. Those talks could be another attempt at a stand down or at least slowdown in the process the MCS board began Dec. 20 with a vote to surrender its charter.

The next step would be a citywide referendum on the question. But the Shelby County Election Commission has not set a date for the election, saying Memphis City Council approval is necessary.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville, the Senate GOP leader, formally introduced Senate bill 25 Tuesday. The bill has a caption saying it would change procedures on the abolition of “certain special school districts.” There was no summary available with the caption on the legislature’s website.

Norris has said his proposal would require a planning commission-type approach now found in state law governing school system mergers in which both school systems want to consolidate. It would also change the referendum from a citywide vote to a countywide vote.

Norris’ goal, if there is no local compromise or stand down worked out, is to fast track votes in the Senate and House to have final approval by Saturday when the legislature meets to attend the inauguration of Gov.-elect Bill Haslam.

After the inauguration, the legislature closes the organizational session it began Tuesday and begins the first day of the “regular session.” That’s when final votes on the bill would happen under the scenario.

After Saturday, the legislature adjourns for a three-week recess.


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