By Richard Locker,
April 2, 2012

NASHVILLE — A bill to lift the statewide ban on new municipal school districts Jan. 1 passed the state Senate on Monday night and is set for House Education Committee review today.

A separate bill that Sen. Mark Norris wants to amend to allow suburban referendums this year on new municipal school districts won House approval — but without a referendum amendment.

That puts a new wrinkle in the push for school referendums in the Memphis suburbs. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Richard Montgomery, said he doesn’t plan on using the bill for any purpose other than the way it passed the House 90-4: to require local school boards to develop and implement annual evaluation plans for local school directors.

Norris, R-Collierville, amended the Senate version of Montgomery’s bill last week in committee to add a process for municipalities’ governing boards to call for referendums on establishing new school districts and, if voters approve, to hold elections to choose the new municipal school board members later this year. The Senate is likely to vote on its version this week.

But Montgomery, R-Sevierville, told The Commercial Appeal after the House adjourned Monday night that no one has asked him to add the referendum amendment to the House version of the bill. If Norris amends Montgomery’s bill in the Senate and that chamber approves it as expected, it must return to the House for concurrence or rejection of the amendment, and Montgomery said he will tell House colleagues at that time that the amendment hasn’t been through the House committee process.

“We’ve got a process down here and bills should go through that process. My bill was for one purpose and one purpose only, and if that amendment comes over, I will make that statement and it will be up to the body (House members). I don’t know how I will vote on that amendment yet,” said Montgomery, the Education Committee chairman.

Norris said later Monday night he’ll speak with Montgomery about the amendment.

Earlier in the evening, the Senate voted 20-10 in favor of Norris’ bill that lifts the 1998 ban on new municipal districts Jan. 1, after a short debate in which Sens. Jim Kyle and Beverly Marrero, both D-Memphis, questioned its impact on the new unified city-county school district.

“It will be the second year in a row in which we have inserted ourselves into that controversy at the request of the sponsor. … I really need you to think about what impact you are causing upon this state’s largest school district,” Kyle said.

But Norris said new districts face a heavy burden under state law and must be reviewed and approved by the state Education Department.

He said the Transition Planning Commission planning the merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools systems “needs to know whether it will be planning for a student body of 150,000, or less, and if less, how many less and where the students will come from.”

Earlier Monday, Gov. Bill Haslam said he wants the commission to complete its work before the suburbs decide whether to create their own school systems.

The delay of referendums originally planned for May 10 may present a timetable more to the governor’s preference. The deadline for completion of the merger plan by the commission is June 15 and there’s little likelihood referendums can be set before that date.

Reporters asked Haslam after a speech to 4-H Club youths from across the state how he stands on the municipal school legislation.

“I’ve said all along, in Shelby County I think the Transition Planning Committee is doing great work. I’ve talked with three of their members in the last week. A lot of people are putting a lot of time and actually a lot of money as well into the effort. I would just love to see that commission reach the end of their work, come out with a proposal and then let the municipals make a decision. I’ve felt that all along.

“The Transition Planning Committee was put in place by Norris-Todd (legislation last year that set up a process for the city-county school merger and lifts the ban on new special and municipal school districts once the merger is complete). I think in the end, it’s worked way better than everybody dreamed. …”

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