Merger issue leans partisan as state GOP leaders vow quick action to make vote countywide

By Richard Locker, Jane Roberts, Commercial Appeal
January 12, 2011

NASHVILLE — Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and new House Speaker Beth Harwell said Tuesday that final approval of a bill Norris has drafted intervening in the Memphis City Schools showdown could occur as quickly as Saturday.

On the legislature’s opening day, Norris, R-Collierville, delayed until today formal introduction of a bill that would require county voter input in order for a special school district to dissolve and transfer administrative control to the county. He said he would wait a day while city and county school officials discuss the issue.

“The two school systems are still in negotiations,” Norris said. “I won’t file my bill until (today) to see where we are.”

Harwell, R-Nashville, also indicated that such an extraordinarily rapid approval of a substantive piece of legislation hinges on unified support of the Shelby County legislative delegation’s Republican members — not bipartisan support of the full delegation traditionally required for fast-tracking local legislation.

She said she had spoken with Norris about the measure.

“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.

Although partisanship between urban Democrats and suburban Republicans has been a backdrop to the entire schools drama, the new House speaker’s remarks are the first time a state official has publicly made it a partisan issue.

Norris’ bill would set up a yearlong planning process before the Memphis and Shelby County school systems could merge. But its major provision would require separate referendum approvals by voters inside and outside Memphis.

Approval by county residents outside the city is not required by current law because across Tennessee, counties are responsible for providing public education.

“I’m trying to help facilitate what I understand are productive discussions between the two systems,” Norris said. “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 MCS board member Martavius Jones, who led the effort to surrender the charter, disagreed.

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

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,” he said.

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

For Norris’ bill to win approval by Saturday, both the House and Senate would have to pass the bill on the first and second of the three constitutionally required “readings” no later than Thursday and Friday — and then both houses would have to suspend the rules requiring substantive legislation to be reviewed and approved by committees in both chambers before the third and final vote.

“Yes, it is possible and we want to keep all options open,” Norris said. “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.”

Harwell said after Tuesday’s opening House session that she would be willing to expedite the legislation if it had the full backing of Republicans in the Shelby County legislative delegation.

The delegation has 14 Democrats, seven Republicans and one vacancy created by the death of Democratic Rep. Ulysses Jones Jr. after the Nov. 2 election. But Republicans have heavy majorities in the two chambers: 20-13 in the Senate and 64-34 (plus one independent) in the House.

Even as the schools’ battle appears headed into the hands of state lawmakers, an attorney representing MCS sent a letter Tuesday to State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins reiterating the board’s request for a referendum to “transfer the administration of the Memphis City School system to the Shelby County Board of Education.”

Goins, after ruling last week that a referendum for MCS to “surrender its charter” also required action by the Memphis City Council, on Monday requested clarification of what MCS was requesting of the Shelby County Election Commission.

“It is in everyone’s best interest to determine on the front end of the election, rather than on the back end, that the proper procedures have been followed,” Goins wrote to Michael Marshall of the Evans Petree law firm. “Does the school board consider the transfer of administration separate from surrendering the charter?”

In a reply to Goins on Tuesday, Marshall urged the Election Commission to move forward with a referendum with this suggested question on the ballot: “Shall the management and control of the Memphis City School System be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?”

Marshall said the school board has met all the requirements for a referendum to be held. MCS believes that the referendum must be held no less than 45 days and no more than 60 days from the original Dec. 22 notification to the commission. Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini, whom critics say is unnecessarily delaying the referendum process because of partisan politics, had previously said Feb. 15 was the most likely date.


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