Proposal on its way to Haslam

By Richard Locker,
April 27, 2012

NASHVILLE — The state House Friday approved the bill allowing the Memphis suburbs to hold referendums this year on creating new city school districts, and if approved, to elect school board members later this year.

The Senate will act on the bill early next week, probably Monday, before the legislature adjourns for the year. But the House vote was the critical one, because the Senate has approved virtually the same measure and is certain to approve the new version and send it to the governor.

The bill, HB 1105, is the more important of the two municipal school-district bills affecting Shelby County. The Senate on Friday sent the other, SB 2908, to the governor. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said that bill only lifts the ban on new municipal districts at the same time as last year’s Public Chapter 1 — in August 2013 — but it does so in a separate section of the law.

“It doesn’t change any deadlines. It doesn’t accelerate anything,” he said.

But HB 1105 lets the suburban cities call referendums and school board elections this year, in advance of starting new school systems as soon as the 2013-14 school year.

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, said he isn’t sure when they plan to ask for elections. “I would assume they will try to hold them in either the (Aug. 2) primary or (Nov. 6) general elections because if they call a special election, they’ll have to pay for it.”

The bill requires the referendum to ask voters if they will “elect to raise local funds to support” the proposed city school system. If a majority agree, the local board of elected officials shall establish a city board of education of three to 11 members to be elected in the same manner as the city board.

The local legislative board can call for a special election for the school board members or add it to an existing election ballot. School board members will take office on the first day of the month after certification of election results.

The school board will plan and manage formation of the new city school system, and submit its plan to the state education commissioner. After the commissioner’s determination of the system’s “general readiness” under state law to begin student instruction, the schools would open between Aug. 1 and the first Monday after Labor Day.

But it said “in no event shall the city schools open prior to the effective date of the transfer of the administration” of Memphis City Schools to the Shelby County unified school board, in August 2013.

Some seemingly confused Memphis legislators tried to filibuster before the House agreed to a motion by Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, to end debate. The bill passed 61-25.

Within an hour of passage, several Shelby County suburbs already were planning special meetings for next week to get the referendums back on track. The cities wanted to hold referendums on May 10 but an advisory opinion by state Atty. Gen. Robert Cooper said they could not begin substantial work toward the school districts until the unified system begins operation in August 2013.

The cities already have passed an ordinance for a referendum on a half-cent increase to the local sales tax to help fund the new city school districts. Since there was no specific date listed on most of those measures, suburban leaders believe it is still valid and needs no further action from the local legislative bodies for consideration by voters. But attorneys are reviewing the law to make sure.

Some of the outlying cities appear to be fast-tracking the municipal-schools ordinances in hopes of getting on the Aug. 2 ballot. Arlington will hold a special meeting Monday night for first reading of the ordinance, Mayor Mike Wissman said. The mayor said final consideration and the public hearing on the ordinance are tentatively set for May 7. Legal advisers are discussing whether they should wait until Gov. Bill Haslam signs the bill before beginning the process.

Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner hopes to start the ordinance with the town board by mid-week. Joyner acknowledged that since the suburbs were delayed on the May 10 date, he wants to move the matter forward, even considering readings on consecutive days rather than waiting for the town’s regular meeting dates on the second and fourth Mondays of the month.

Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said the suburb’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen will meet Wednesday to have a first reading on the ordinances to get the ball rolling on a referendum. The board already was scheduled to hold a budget work session that night, and she said it would add a special-called meeting so it could act on the referendum.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald also wants to move the local ordinance through the Board of Mayor and Aldermen as quickly as possible. But he wants to be cautious.

“I’m really not looking to do much of anything until the governor signs it,” McDonald said Friday night. There have been too many twists and turns. If we end up in court, I don’t want people to say we passed it before it was signed.”

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