Bill lifting ban on municipal systems amended to apply in Shelby County

By Richard Locker,
April 10, 2012

NASHVILLE — The mayor of Bartlett told a state legislative committee Tuesday that any countywide Shelby County school district would be controlled by Memphis because of the city’s size and “that has not been an acceptable better option” for suburban residents.

Mayor Keith McDonald joined other suburban school advocates in responding to questions from the House Education Committee about the bill to lift the state’s 14-year-old ban on new municipal school districts.

The committee amended the bill, approved it and sent it to the Finance Committee for review of its economic impact. Former Memphis City Schools board chairman Martavius Jones and unified school board member Patrice Jordan Robinson also fielded questions.

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, asked the panel whether there’s “a better way” than forming new city school systems to avoid a 150,000-student district that Dunn said seems like “a whole lot for one system.”

McDonald, who like Jones is a member of the Transition Planning Commission planning the merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools, acknowledged there’s been discussion of a countywide district headed by a chancellor of schools but with smaller semi-autonomous components.

But he said such “chancellor models” that he’s reviewed “have not been very successful.”

“In addition … because of the size of the city of Memphis, the primary control of that school system would lie with them as opposed to the other municipalities. And so that has not been an acceptable better option for our residents. They’d like the opportunity to vote on having their own…” McDonald said.

Dunn also asked who would be responsible for educating children now attending Shelby County schools taken over by the suburbs but who don’t live in them and whose families don’t pay municipal taxes. McDonald and two consultants advising the suburban cities, Jim Mitchell and Tim Fite, said cooperative agreements are common among school systems that would allow students to continue attending the same schools even if they live outside the new districts.

But Dunn said, “Forget the cooperative agreements — because in this area of the state, the word cooperation does not leap to the forefront of my brain when I hear about it.”

Earlier, Robinson told the committee that the unified school board has not taken a position on the bill but added, “The board and the Transition Planning Commission remain committed to developing a successful model for all children in the county. All we are asking in Shelby County is to allow us to create this merged school system before we are faced with additional changes.”

The committee’s amendment to House Bill 3234 alters the timing for lifting the ban from the Jan. 1, 2013, date that’s in the version of the bill that passed the Senate April 2. The amendment by Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, says the ban on new city districts is lifted “from and after the effective date of the transfer of the administration of the schools in a special school district to the county board of education….”

That’s virtually the same language written into last year’s Public Chapter 1, the “Norris-Todd Act” that established the timetable and process for the merger of the city and county schools now under way. Under Norris-Todd, the merger’s effective date is the start of the 2013-14 school year, in August of 2013.

“The bottom line is nobody is trying to accelerate the creation of new municipal districts,” Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, told The Commercial Appeal when asked about the House amendment later.

Norris said the Jan. 1, 2013, date in his bill is practically irrelevant because a new municipal school district cannot be operating that soon, and wouldn’t start operations in the middle of a school year anyway.

Meanwhile, the House is scheduled to give final legislative approval today to his other bill that would allow the Memphis suburbs to move ahead this year with referendums on whether to establish new municipal school districts and, if voters approve the new districts, to elect school board members to begin planning the new districts.

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