Norris Bill Moves As Compromise Questioned

On January 17, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

By Bill Dries,
January 17, 2011

School consolidation legislation proposed by State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville is moving in the Tennessee legislature in advance of Saturday’s inauguration of Bill Haslam as Tennessee governor.

The legislation would include Shelby County voters outside Memphis in any school consolidation referendum and lengthen the process for such a merger to at least a year. The bill passed the first of three votes in the House and the second of three votes in the Senate as of Friday afternoon.

“It will be referred to committee for action and we’ll reschedule it for a vote in the Senate after we return and reconvene,” Norris said in a written statement.

He is referring to the three week recess the legislature takes after Saturday’s inauguration.

Norris’s original plan was to fast track final approval in both houses by Saturday’s recess.

But Thursday, Norris said in another written statement that “further legislative action this week seems unwarranted.” He was reacting to word of what he said he was told was “an agreement in principle” between attorneys for Shelby County’s two public school systems to a compromise that would form a planning committee similar to the one proposed in his legislation.

The Memphis City Schools (MCS) board voted Thursday evening to meet again soon to discuss, ask questions about and possibly vote on the offer. But MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson didn’t make any recommendation to the board Thursday in presenting the terms. And the board’s decision to hear more about the terms at another meeting does not mean there will necessarily be any vote on it.

Norris’s statement from the day of the board meeting adds, “The pendency of SB25 (his bill) should not interfere in any way with the parties efforts to peaceably resolve an issue of such magnitude and importance to the schoolchildren and all residents of our county.”

His written statement the next day was briefer and touched on a legal point on which there is disagreement and could possibly be litigation at some later date.

“It is our position,” he wrote, “that if SB25 becomes law, there won’t be a city-only referendum.”

That’s not the position of Allan Wade, the attorney representing a citizens group whose lawsuit forced the calling of an MCS charter surrender vote earlier in the week.

Wade’s court settlement of the lawsuit against the Shelby County Election Commission specifies it will be a city only vote. And Wade specifically required a written copy of the order by the end of the business day Friday anticipating possible final passage of SB 25 on Saturday as Norris originally planned.

Wade said the court order keeps the referendum a city only election no matter what happens in the legislature.

“With the court order … it’s our position that the city voters have a vested right to vote on the question and that that right cannot be impaired by subsequent legislation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz has requested a legal opinion from the Shelby County Attorney’s office on parts of the compromise the MCS board is to discuss.

Among his concerns is a part of the plan that would require both school boards to accept the recommendations of an appointed planning committee that would meet for at least 18 months and consider not only school consolidation but special school district status for county schools as well as funding issues.

“If either board refuses to vote to adopt the team recommendation, is that a violation of this agreement?” Ritz asked County Attorney Kelly Rayne. “How can MCS and SCS commit to a vote 18 months from now? I think you have told us we can’t commit to future votes.”

Ritz also questioned how a referendum could be authorized through the planning committee process. Under terms of the proposed compromise, the referendum would be a single countywide vote.

Ritz questioned that and whether the referendum could be a vote on anything more than a simple yes or no on the charter surrender.

“If the recommendation recommends MCS give up their charter, they can ask for a referendum on that matter but not any implementation processes put in the recommendation and only city voters would vote, correct?”


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