By Richard Locker,
November 28, 2012

NASHVILLE — State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and other suburban school advocates are weighing options for putting municipal school districts back on track, including a court appeal, a legal settlement and more legislative action.

“Something will have to happen to address the court’s concern. What it is, I don’t know. What the General Assembly may be willing to do, I don’t know,” Norris said Wednesday. The Republican leader from Collierville led the legislative effort over the past two years to allow new school districts in the Memphis suburbs after the merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools.

He said it would be “very simple to address the court’s concerns” with a bill that either repeals the ban on new municipal and special school districts statewide or removes the details written into this year’s law. Those details led U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays to conclude it applies only to Shelby County, in violation of the Tennessee Constitution. But while a new bill that simply lifted the ban statewide might address the issue raised by Tuesday’s court ruling, it would make it much more difficult to win legislative approval, especially in the House of Representatives — which passed the bill this year only after its supporters said it would apply only in Shelby. Political opposition outside Shelby to new municipal and special school districts across Tennessee is why the 2012 bill was narrowly drawn to limit the circumstances in which new school districts could be created.

“I can’t say what could pass for a couple of reasons,” said Norris. “First, I’m just one legislator, despite what some people may say. Secondly, we have a lot of new members. We’ll have new committees, new committee chairmen (or) chairwomen. I have no idea who those people will be or what their disposition may be.”

But Norris added, “The ban needs to go. It’s a vestige of the past and it’s irrelevant other than as an impediment to better education.”

Norris’ GOP racked up supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature Nov. 6 — enough to pass legislation and suspend rules over Democratic objections. The Senate would likely approve any bill Norris presented, but the House — which balked at a statewide repeal in 2011 and 2012 — has 18 new members out of a total of 99. It will also have a new education committee chairman, after the defeat of Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, in August. All of which makes for a changed political environment when lawmakers reconvene in January.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said a repeal of the ban would be controversial and he doesn’t know if it would pass. “I have no doubt that Sen. Norris will attempt to pass legislation to overturn Judge Mays’ ruling. However, I would encourage him to work with our local officials and the state Department of Education in crafting such a bill.

“In every county where you have a city with a higher socioeconomic level that could spin off a new school district, it could create problems. The ban was put in for reasons — the proliferation of school districts and the damage caused to counties’ ability to fund their school districts — and we’ll have to determine if those reasons are still valid,” Kyle said.

Norris said he has “tremendous respect” for the court and Judge Mays. “I understand his rationale. I know that other judges could have ruled differently. I think the outcome could very well be different on appeal, but that doesn’t get us to the ultimate result that we all want, which is the best education system we can devise. One that denies people freedom of choice is not a good place to start, and that’s one of the difficulties we have.”

But Norris disagreed with the central finding of Mays’ ruling. “The only thing that is clearly incorrect about the court’s opinion is the one sentence where he says this was intended to apply to Shelby County only. That was never the case in the Senate.

“The case at issue at the moment was Shelby County. But our legal staff intended to draft this very carefully to make sure it applied not just to one locality but broadly to pass constitutional muster.”

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