Legislature to vote on bill on Memphis school merger

On February 7, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

Proposal would put move on hold following angry reactions

By Tom Humphrey, KnoxNews.com
February 7, 2011

NASHVILLE – As they return today from a three-week recess, the apparent first order of business for Tennessee’s state legislators is a partisan vote with racial overtones.

The Republican-sponsored bill will resolve a major Memphis controversy over attempts to merge the predominately black city school system with the predominately white Shelby County school system.

In effect, the bill will put the merger on hold until at least 2013 while a legislatively created commission studies the matter. Earlier versions would have outright blocked the planned merger, but Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris agreed to revisions after a round of negotiations and angry reactions from Memphis officials.

Other provisions in the revised bill would repeal current law restricting formation of new “special school districts,” which could lead to smaller Shelby County towns setting up their own schools and not being a part of any future merged system.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who could see the bill become the first measure he signs as governor, has been involved in negotiations with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

House and Senate committees held special meetings during the recess period last week to approve the legislation on party-line votes – Republicans for, Democrats against.

It is scheduled for a House floor vote tonight and a Senate floor vote on Thursday, where the outcome will likely be the same, given the GOP’s solid control of vote chambers.

During last week’s committee debate, Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, who worked on the merger of Knoxville and Knox County schools years ago, called the special school district provisions a “huge Trojan horse that will do irreparable harm” to Memphis and put students across the county under a “giant shell game.”

“You could have special school districts popping up all over Shelby County, without referendums, and the old Memphis City Schools could be run by the county with the authority of Memphis residents diluted,” Tindell said.

But Republican Rep. Curry Todd said the real “Trojan horse” was the Memphis City School Board’s decision to transfer the school district to the county, backed by city officials whom he said want to shed the city’s funding obligations.

Todd and Senate sponsor Norris both live in Collierville, a suburban town that is now within the Shelby County system.

The school board has proposed to surrender its charter, which would automatically mean – under current law – that the city school system would then become a part of the county school system.

A March 8 referendum has been scheduled in Memphis on transferring control over city schools to the county. Sponsors wanted to move quickly on the legislation to have it enacted before the referendum.

On other fronts, no such rapid action is anticipated as lawmakers continue to file bills and settle into new quarters following a major reshuffling of office space prompted by the election of 23 new legislators last November.

Richard Locker of the Commercial Appeal contributed to this story.


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