Election Commission backs 6 referendums

By Zack McMillin, CommercialAppeal.com
June 14, 2012

It is official: The Aug. 2 Shelby County election ballot will ask citizens of six suburban municipalities whether they want to create their own school districts and raise their taxes to pay for them.

Two ordinances each from the suburbs were approved in alphabetical order Wednesday by the county Election Commission: Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington.

In matter-of-fact, near monotonous tones, the five commission members took turns making a total of 12 motions that they seconded and approved unanimously.

“We certainly appreciate the Election Commission’s decision, so that this can move forward to the voters in Germantown,” Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said later.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald echoed Goldsworthy’s comments. He said, “It allows us to move forward, and let the people have their say. Which is what we’ve been asking for, the same right that the Memphians had from the very beginning.”

One Bartlett citizen, Darrell Thompson, raised several objections to the referendums, but commission chairman Robert Meyers explained that it would take a judge or “another body” to determine if the referendums were somehow invalid.

Commission lawyers John Ryder and Monice Hagler both told the board they felt the ordinances passed by municipalities were valid and allowed the commission to place the items on the Aug. 2 ballot. They all passed unanimously.

Early voting begins July 13 for the Aug. 2 elections, which include state and federal primaries and county general elections.

It remains unclear if other legal issues might arise. A majority of the members of the Shelby County Commission have indicated a willingness to challenge the clause in a revised schools consolidation law from 2011 that allows for a statewide ban on municipal or special school districts to be lifted after the administration and operations of Memphis’ public schools are transferred to Shelby County in time for the 2013-14 school year.

U.S. Dist. Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled last August that the 2011 law, known as Public Chapter 1 or Norris-Todd, was valid and would guide the process of merging Memphis schools with those that had been under control of an all-suburban Shelby County Schools board.

However, he said the clause lifting the ban on municipal schools was not yet “ripe,” and in briefings had agreed to put on the “back burner” some of the planned challenges to the lifting of that ban.

County Commissioners Steve Mulroy and Walter Bailey each have said within the last week that the commission is still weighing its options, but in May each said they expected the commission to ask the judge to determine if the clause lifting the municipal schools ban was “ripe” and could then be argued and ruled upon.

They would not say when they planned to make that legal challenge — before or after the referendums — saying they preferred not to disclose their legal strategy.

Referendums that had previously been approved for May were abandoned after the state attorney general ruled the municipalities had acted illegally, but a new bill pushed by Republican state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville allowed the referendums to be held this year.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who had consistently said he was opposed to any new schools consolidation legislation, signed the bill into law in May. The municipalities then passed new ordinances.

Robust campaigns to vote yes on those referendums are now well under way.

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