By Richard Locker, CommercialAppeal.com
March 29, 2012

NASHVILLE — Legislation has begun moving in the state legislature that will allow referendums on the creation of municipal school districts this year, as well as the election of new municipal school boards if voters approve the new districts.

The bill is separate from a bill already moving on a separate track in the General Assembly that would lift the state ban on the creation of new municipal school districts effective next Jan. 1.

The new measure is an amendment containing a new framework for the initial steps of establishing new municipal school districts, anywhere in the state, that would go into effect upon the bill becoming law. It is set for a House floor vote next Monday night and is likely to be scheduled for a Senate floor vote next week as well.

But it’s still unclear whether legislative approval next week is adequate time for the Shelby County Election Commission to schedule referendums for five Shelby County suburban cities for May 10. The commission called off those referendums last week after the state attorney general opined that no movement toward creation of new municipal school districts — including referendums — can occur until the Memphis and Shelby County schools merger is completed in August 2013.

Richard Holden, the Shelby County Election Commission’s coordinator of elections, said Thursday election officials need at least 45 days’ notice to schedule elections, both because of state election law and for practical reasons connected with preparing for an election. Holden said the law says the election would be held 45 to 60 days after lawful notification of a request for a referendum is given.

The May 10 date is important to the suburbs because it would allow them to have the election of municipal school board members on the November ballot. State law requires that there be a 90-day lag time between establishment of the school system and the deadline for candidates to file for November.

The new amendment by Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville was attached Wednesday night in the Senate Education Committee to a bill on school bullying that had sat dormant since it was filed in February 2011. Bills can be amended with seemingly unrelated legislation as long as the bill’s caption cites the section of Tennessee law that the bill addresses.

The amendment is not attached yet to the House version of the bill but can be added on the House floor Monday night as the bill is discussed and before its floor vote.

Norris said the amendment will allow the suburban cities to proceed with referendums this year, and the election of school board members if voters approve the new districts, so they can be ready when the ban on new municipal districts is repealed by existing law next year. He said it’s not designed to interfere with the city-county school merger process but rather to facilitate it by letting the Transition Planning Commission that’s working out merger details know in advance whether the new unified school district will contain 150,000 students countywide, or whether new municipal districts will exist.

“There’s a lifting of the ban (on new special and municipal districts) in August 2013. So the question became, towns like Arlington … and Bartlett, they need to determine whether their folks are going to stand for the municipality creating one of these districts and raise the revenue through raising taxes that will be necessary to support it,” Norris said.

“I think most of the municipalities think that that will be supported but I’m not sure all of them will. Without having a referendum before the ban is lifted at the end, they’ll never have the input or the guidance that’s needed for the Transition Planning Commission to know: are they dealing with 150,000 students or are they dealing with something smaller?”

Norris also noted that the suburbs have written the Transition Planning Commission asking that their cities be allowed to “help educate children not only in their towns but outside their borders.”

“The commission hadn’t felt like it was appropriate for them to consider that because they don’t exist. So it’s a little bit of a chicken or egg, or cart before the horse situation,” he said.

“We’re not trying to accelerate the pace of forming districts but we do think that the municipalities and the citizens therein should have the opportunity to vote on whether they want to do it or not,” Norris said. He said he still believes that the earliest new schools system can start is the start of the 2013-14 school year.

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