By Richard Locker,
April 9, 2012

NASHVILLE — The state Senate approved a bill Monday paving the way — if the House also approves it — for the Memphis suburbs to hold referendums this year on creating municipal school districts.

The House put the bill on its agenda for Wednesday morning. Because the House has already approved the base bill, which deals with annual evaluations of local schools directors, its members will be deciding only whether to concur with the Senate amendment on referendums.

That amendment sets out a process for municipalities to decide whether to call for public referendums on establishing their own school districts and, if approved, to call for elections of members of the new municipal school boards.

The action was triggered by the upcoming merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems. Many suburban residents and leaders have made it clear that they do not want to be part of the merged systems.

Several Shelby County suburbs had planned to hold referendums on May 10, but the state attorney general opined last month that current law would not allow referendums until the Memphis-Shelby schools merger takes effect.

The Senate passed the bill 19-8 Monday night, with the school-district amendment added by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville. The amendment does not repeal the state’s 14-year-old ban on new municipal districts, but separate legislation is moving that would lift that ban on Jan. 1.

“The ban … is still there. But this gives them a roadmap of procedures they can follow before the ban is lifted,” Norris said.

The amendment authorizes the governing boards of municipalities, before the ban is actually lifted, to determine that a city school system is: allowed by the city’s charter, “would promote the public welfare through enhancement of educational innovation, opportunity and achievement,” and would possess adequate student enrollment under state law (1,500 students). If so, the governing board can request the county election commission to conduct a referendum.

If a majority of voters in the referendum “elect to raise local funds” to support the new system, then the governing board can establish a new city board of education of three to 11 members elected to staggered four-year terms.

In a brief Senate discussion Monday, Norris acknowledged that the bill does not address the controversial issue of whether existing Shelby County school buildings within new municipal districts must be transferred to the new districts and at what price, if any.

Norris also acknowledged, under questioning by Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, that nothing in the bill prohibits citizens of the municipalities from going to court to try to block the referendums if they don’t believe proper standards are met and followed.

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