Legislation would end ’98 ban on new districts
By Richard Locker, CommercialAppeal.com
March 28, 2012
NASHVILLE — Legislation to repeal Tennessee’s 14-year-old ban on new municipal school districts is set for a key House committee vote today, and even its opponents say it’s likely to pass.

The bill plays a role in the push by Shelby County’s suburbs to create their own school districts and avoid the Memphis and Shelby County school systems merger set to go into effect for the 2013-14 school year.

But it may not restore the May 10 referendums in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown and Lakeland. The votes were called off last week by the Shelby County Election Commission after state Atty. Gen. Robert Cooper opined that no major work toward new municipal school districts — including referendums, hiring staff and building construction or improvements — can occur until the merger is complete next summer, under the provisions of last year’s state law setting up the merger process.

As written, the bill would repeal the prohibition on new municipal school districts statewide effective next Jan. 1. And that’s only seven or eight months earlier than the ban would have been lifted in Shelby County under last year’s law. The effective date could be amended, but there has been no movement to do so.

The bill is set for review in the House Education Subcommittee at 3:30 p.m. today. Its House sponsor, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Tuesday he has been told it will have the votes to pass the subcommittee.

McCormick is a Memphis native who is handling the bill in the House at the request of Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, its Senate sponsor. He postponed a vote on it in the subcommittee last week after Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, asked for time for the Shelby delegation to discuss the issue and after a Republican member from Knoxville, Rep. Bill Dunn, also said he was “hesitant” to support the bill.

DeBerry said Tuesday that the Shelby delegation will likely discuss the bill at its weekly luncheon meeting today. But she said if the Republican leader pushes it, it will pass the subcommittee, which has an 8-5 GOP majority.

Norris’ Senate version is ready for a Senate floor vote. That hasn’t been scheduled, but Norris said Tuesday he is ready to proceed.

The ban on new municipal districts was enacted in 1998 as part of that year’s comprehensive reform of Tennessee laws governing new municipalities, annexation and urban growth planning.

A separate provision in state law approved in 1982 bans the creation of new special school districts in Tennessee. Unlike municipal school systems, the school boards of special districts have authority to levy school taxes.

At that time, the Tennessee legislature was adopting a number of education reforms at the recommendation of then-governor Lamar Alexander. There had been a proliferation of school districts and policymakers believed multiple districts — each with their own administrative staffs — were duplicative and costly.

The poster counties for that were Carroll and Gibson counties in West Tennessee, with six and five school districts, respectively.

Huntingdon Mayor Dale Kelley, a state representative and member of the House Education Committee in 1982, recalls that the policy discussion at that time focused on school district costs and consolidation.

“We were going through a transition back in the 1960s and ’70s and a lot of counties were consolidating their school systems. A lot of counties went to one school system,” Kelley said.

“Carroll County has had special school districts since 1923. They were formed because they didn’t feel like the county commission was adequately funding school systems at that time. The locals wanted to have their own school systems with taxing authority,” said Kelley, who served on the Huntingdon school board for nine years.

Tennessee has 136 school districts spread across its 95 counties.

Norris told the Senate Education Committee on March 14 that he filed the bill partly to “remove any lingering doubt if there is any in the minds of some people who occasionally talk about future litigation or something of that sort about whether you can have municipal districts in Tennessee,” even though the law he passed last year lifts the ban on municipal and special districts in Shelby County at the time the city-county school merger is complete.

He also said it’s to help encourage the Transition Planning Commission that is helping plan the merger, and the new unified school board, to include new municipal districts in their planning.

“What this is really designed to do is, by lifting the ban statewide, is to resolve that issue so people don’t hesitate to embrace it as part of the unified plan or otherwise,” he told the committee before it passed it 8-0, with one abstention.

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