By Richard Locker, CommercialAppeal.com
April 30, 2012

NASHVILLE – The state Senate gave final legislative approval this afternoon to a bill allowing the Memphis suburbs to hold referendums and school board elections this year on new municipal school districts, despite charges that the bill is “part of a growing trend…of apartheid in Shelby County.”

The bill now goes to the governor for his signature, which is expected soon. The House approved the same measure Friday, which was the critical vote.

The Senate, which had approved virtually the same language in the bill last week, followed suit today, approving the measure on a 22-9 vote that was largely – but not completely – along party lines. Memphis Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate voted for the bill.

But the vote came after short speeches in opposition by Sens. Jim Kyle and Beverly Marrero, two Memphis Democrats. Kyle raised the specter of “apartheid” and said the vote will haunt the legislature in the future.

“This is a matter that Senator Norris and I see about as completely and differently as two men can see it,” Kyle said.

“While many of you view this as simply a partisan discussion or an urban and suburban discussion, and it doesn’t effect you — you’re with your friends. I’ll say to you this: what this is is a part of a growing trend of, quite frankly, apartheid in Shelby County.

“That is where we are, that’s what we’re doing with these schools and that’s what you are voting for with this conference committee — to allow the suburban cities in Shelby County to form their own school systems so they don’t have to have their school systems with the people of Memphis, when almost 75 percent of every one of the jobs of those folks is in Memphis,” Kyle said.

He continued: “Now one day this is going to come back to haunt you. … This is the first step down a road that the city of Memphis doesn’t need to go down, and one day the State of Tennessee is going to have to recognize that Memphis is the second largest city and it’s going to have some problems.

Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who has led the legislative push to allow the suburbs to vote, bristled at Kyle’s remarks.

“I will not dignify the remarks made by the gentleman across the aisle with a response,” Norris said.

Rather, he said that the bill to allow referendums and school board elections prior to the completion of the merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools for the start of the 2013-14 school year is to allow a smoother transition and for planning what the geography of public K-12 education countywide will be.

“We seek a smooth transition,” Norris said. “We seek an opportunity for the Transition Planning Commission to think outside the box, that we do something better for the children in the schools than what has been done before, to embrace the concept of a unified system, not just a merged system.

Norris said the suburban cities “have stepped forward and offered to be a part of that process and to put to a vote to the citizens of their towns the question of whether their citizens are willing to raise their own taxes beyond what they pay countywide, not just to form their own school systems but to be part of the unified system by helping shoulder the responsibility and the financial burden of educating all the children in the county. I’m sorry that it’s been misconstrued despite all our best efforts.”

HB 1105 paves the way for the suburban cities to conduct referendums and school board elections this year, in anticipation of starting their new school systems at the start of the 2013-14 school year when the ban is lifted.

The bill provides that the referendum will ask voters if they will elect to raise local funds to support the proposed city school system. If a majority agree, then the governing body of the municipality shall by ordinance establish a city board of education of not less than three nor more than 11 members to be elected in the same manner as the city council or board of aldermen.

The city council or board of aldermen can call for a special election for the school board members or add it to a primary or general election. The school board members will take office on the first day of the first month following the certification of election results.

The school board will plan and manage the formation of the new city school system, and submit its plan for the system to the state education commissioner. After the commissioner’s determination “of the new city school system’s general readiness to commence student instruction, city schools shall open between Aug. 1 and the first Monday following Labor Day.

But “in no event shall the city schools open prior to the effective date of the transfer of the administration of the schools in the special school district pursuant to the county board of education” – a reference to the formal transfer of administration of Memphis City Schools to the Shelby County unified school board, anticipated in August 2013.

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