By Richard Locker, CommercialAppeal.com
April 26, 2012

NASHVILLE — The state House of Representatives approved one of two municipal school district bills Thursday night after a vigorous debate that included assertions it will lead to racial re-segregation of schools in Shelby County.

The bill won Senate approval April 2, but goes back to that chamber for likely approval of a House amendment that alters its effective date.

Also, a House-Senate conference committee agreed Thursday on a separate bill to allow referendums this year in the Memphis suburbs on creating new municipal school districts. It is expected to be voted on today.

Despite the rhetoric, Senate Bill 2908 as approved Thursday night appears to be a backstop for last year’s Norris-Todd law lifting the state’s ban on new municipal school districts in August 2013 — the same time specified in Norris-Todd.

Although the Senate-approved bill lifts the ban on Jan. 1, 2013, the House amendment lifts it “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 is virtually the same language from the Norris-Todd Act, but SB2908 inserts it into the section of Tennessee law governing municipal governments, where new municipal districts were banned in 1998. Norris-Todd applies to the education section of Tennessee law.

But in an hour-long debate, lawmakers on both sides of the issue gave varying views of when the ban is lifted. Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, said it allows the suburban cities pushing for the legislation to speed up their planning for new school systems and possibly referendums. Referendums would definitely be allowed this year under the separate House Bill 1105 up for floor votes today.

A succession of Memphis legislators charged that SB2980 has racial motivations, which its sponsor, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, rejected. “It’s been asked if this is not racial segregation all over again. Certainly I’m not motivated by that.”

Later, Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, said unified school board members and the Transition Planning Commission in Memphis “are trying to create a school system that’s in the best interest of all the citizens, and now even before the work is finished and before the deadline that was established, we’re going to go possible to six or seven school systems. There seems to be something racial about this.”

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, attacked the process in which he said an important issue affecting all of Shelby County was not brought before the Shelby County legislative delegation, although Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, discussed the issue at the delegation’s weekly luncheon last week.

“The unintended consequences are these: If you create school systems that are more affluent — if on one side of town people have an average household salary of $120,000 a year — and on the other side it’s $20,000 or $25,000 — you can assume one will have a better system,” Towns said. “We should create a system where everybody has a good education. You know the disparity of economics in the city and in the state. So you’re creating a separate system. You have separate and unequal. We’re supposed to be modern people.”

The bill passed the House 62-30.

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