Lawmakers prefer to let school merger run its course

On August 12, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
August 12, 2011

Despite renewed calls for more legislative intervention in the Memphis-Shelby County school merger, state lawmakers said they see little need for more action soon and instead want the merger-planning process already in state law to start.

State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said the 21 members of a transition planning commission should be appointed immediately and begin their work. The panel was created in the “Norris-Todd” law that he and Rep. Curry Todd, both R-Collierville, wrote and which the legislature approved in February.

Norris and other Shelby County legislators on Thursday discounted talk among merger opponents of a special session of the legislature to address their concerns about Monday’s federal court ruling that upheld the two-year merger process.

That ruling also found the current composition of the county school board unconstitutional because it excludes Memphis representation, and opponents have expressed concern that U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays could order an election soon of a new countywide school board dominated by Memphis. Parties to the ongoing court case are to submit their proposals for a remedy today.

But Norris said there is “absolutely no need for anything like” a special session before the legislature reconvenes in January.

“Everybody needs to get on about the business of putting together the planning commission and making up for lost time. They’ve lost several months now and they need to focus on what’s in the best interests of the children, and the first order of business is to get that planning commission in place,” Norris said.

The commission’s members are to be appointed by County Mayor Mark Luttrell, the chairmen of the city and county school boards, Gov. Bill Haslam and the speakers of the state House and Senate.

Although Mays ruled that the merger won’t occur until 2013, merger opponents’ fear of a city-dominated school board overseeing the merger led to renewed talk among suburban leaders of state legislation to allow creation of new municipal and special school districts in Shelby County to sidestep consolidation.

The Norris-Todd law lifts the state’s ban on new special and municipal school districts in Shelby County, but not until the administration of city schools is transferred to the county board of education.

Todd said the intent of this year’s bill was for both school boards to remain through the planning process leading up to merger, when a new school board would be elected.

Todd said he agrees with Mays’ decisions so far, but said a possible ruling for a quicker election of a countywide school board might justify more state legislative action next year.

“Based on how he rules, it may set a whole new parameter on that issue,” he said. “I think an election is premature.”

Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, said he has heard talk by suburban leaders who want municipal school districts and is open to more legislative intervention.

“We are waiting for the judge’s opinion and his interpretation of the intent of the Norris-Todd bill, but it could very well lead to consideration of additional legislation,” said Lollar. “And all things would be on the table at that point.”

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