By Richard Locker,
 April 18, 2012

NASHVILLE — Shelby County’s legislative delegation finally had an airing of differences today over the push to allow the suburbs to create their own school systems.

At the delegation’s weekly luncheon meeting, for the first time this year Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris outlined his bills to let the suburban cities hold referendums and school board elections this year, in advance of next year’s lifting of the state’s 14-year-old ban on new municipal school districts — in Shelby County only.

Memphis lawmakers critiqued that effort as a further balkanization of the education in the state’s largest county. “We could go from two to perhaps seven” school districts, said Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis.

But Norris, R-Collierville, sought to make his case that allowing the suburbs to decide this year what they’re going to do next year will help, not hurt, the planning process for the new countywide school system that becomes unified in August 2013.

“It’s not intended to accelerate the transfer of administration (of the Memphis City Schools to the new unified county school district) or disrupt it in any way,” Norris said. “It doesn’t interfere with anything the Transition Planning Commission is doing. They are on a very narrow path to merger of 150,000 students. They don’t know any more than we know whether municipalities will or will not be successful in forming municipal districts — which is permitted under Public Chapter 1; it’s just a timing question.

“This legislation… could give greater clarity in advance of their final report. Right now they’re talking about getting out a report in June of what they recommend. They may not be interested in knowing what the other 20-, 30-, 40,000 students in Shelby County are going to do. I think there are a number of them who do care and would like to know the population that they have to work with and to come up with the best unified system that they can.”

Norris said that ultimately his goal was to give the Transition Planning Commission the option of considering municipal school districts as “autonomous” parts of a broader unified school district, much like the autonomous states’ relationship to the federal government. “It’s been the Transition Planning Commission’s position that they only have one option and that is a mere merger, as opposed to a system, for example, somewhat similar to our federal system of government where we have autonomous states that have ceded some responsibility to the federal government. So too could the municipal school systems do the same in a truly unified system, like the United States.”

Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, said, “You do know that led to the Civil War?”

Norris: “I’m sorry you look at things through those glasses.”

Richardson: “I’m sure we just disagree on this“

Norris: “I’m sure we do if you think this is a civil war.”

Later today, the House Finance Committee advanced a bill intended to clarify that the ban enacted in 1998 on new municipal school districts is lifted in Shelby County next year when the administration of the Memphis City Schools is formally transferred to the new countywide school district. The bill now goes to the Calendar Committee, which will schedule it for a House floor vote. The bill passed the Senate on April 2.

The bill is one of two bills paving the way for the creation of new municipal school districts next year. The other bill, allowing referendums and school board elections in the suburbs this year — in preparation for the lifting of the ban next year — will be up in the state Senate on Thursday.

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