By Richard Locker,
February 9, 2013

NASHVILLE — After breaking off negotiations in the ongoing school merger case, suburban leaders and legislators from Shelby County will make another run at creating their own school districts in the now-familiar corridors of the statehouse, where they’re likely to find an even more receptive audience than in the previous two years.

Lawmakers say they may file a bill as soon as this week that would likely repeal Tennessee’s 15-year-old prohibition on new municipal school systems statewide. The state legislature last year lifted the ban only in Shelby County, but a federal judge in Memphis ruled a Shelby-only bill violated the Tennessee Constitution.

That municipal school approach is favored by suburban leaders over a plan for converting schools in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington into charter schools under the municipalities’ control. The suburban mayors had focused on charter schools in their negotiations with the County Commission and City Council but ended the talks Friday after declaring an impasse primarily over how much control the suburbs would have. A charter school approach could remain on the legislative table as a backup plan.

If the legislature legalized the creation of new municipal school systems across the state, it could negate the key provision that U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays overturned Nov. 27 — but other issues, including Equal Protection considerations over the possibility of resegregation of schools in Shelby County, are before the judge for review.

Shelby’s suburban state legislators struggled through the 2012 legislative session, especially in the House of Representatives, to win approval of the bill that allowed the suburban cities to hold referendums on creating new municipal districts and elections for school board members after voters approved the new districts. House leaders resisted lifting the ban statewide and eventually limited it to Shelby County.

But with Mays’ ruling forcing them to regroup, suburban mayors and legislators are more confident they can win approval of a statewide repeal because of several reasons:

Richard Montgomery, the Sevierville Republican who chaired the House Education Committee in 2011-12, lost re-election to a GOP primary challenger last August. Montgomery had favored limiting last year’s bill to Shelby County.

The new chairman, Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, participated in a Nashville meeting Tuesday with all of Shelby County’s suburban legislators, the mayors or city managers of the six municipalities, legislative staff attorneys, attorneys for the suburbs and others to lay the groundwork for another legislative push. Brooks could not be reached this weekend but is likely more willing to consider a statewide repeal.

There has been so much turnover in the legislature that few members know why their predecessors in 1998 banned new municipal districts and have no institutional commitment to keeping the ban in place. The 1998 move was part of a comprehensive reform of Tennessee law governing municipal annexations, land-use and urban-growth planning, and when and how new towns can be established.

And in 1984, lawmakers banned creation of new special school districts — whose boards have taxing authority — to stop a proliferation of new school systems, each with overhead costs of separate administrative staffs, superintendents, offices, bus systems and other costly duplications. That was part of then-governor Lamar Alexander’s education reforms, which were funded with a sales tax increase and amusement tax that lawmakers wanted spent on classrooms and not on new school bureaucracies.

But there are 28 legislative freshmen this year in the 132-member General Assembly. Only seven of the 33 senators and 29 of the 99 representatives held office in 1998, and fewer still in 1984. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who spearheaded the suburban school legislation, argued that the 1984 and 1998 laws are stifling innovation in local schools.

The Memphis suburbs are heavily Republican, and Republicans enlarged their control of the legislature in the November election, winning supermajorities in both chambers. The suburbs’ victories on school issues in the statehouse in 2011 and 2012 directly resulted from the GOP takeover of the statehouse in 2010, ending Democratic control that often sided with the City of Memphis and Memphis City Schools over the suburbs’ long effort to get special school-district status for the Shelby County School system.

Finally, some suburban legislators and leaders are using the City Council’s vote last week to re-name three Confederate-named city parks as a talking point, albeit privately, to their legislative colleagues from elsewhere on the divisiveness in Shelby County. Their point is the school fight must be settled in Nashville because the suburbs see themselves battling a Memphis-centric power structure they believe was intransigent in the negotiations. The council’s swift action on the parks headed off a state bill filed just days earlier that would have blocked the renaming.

Memphis was much less of a roadblock in the negotiations than the County Commission, some suburban leaders said. “The city of Memphis and the municipalities had more agreement in the negotiations than the municipalities and the County Commission, which is surprising I think to a lot of people,” said Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman.

Members of the County Commission and City Council said Friday they believe suburban leaders received assurances in Nashville that new legislation could pass to aid their cause. “I guess they feel like they got offered a better deal from the state legislature,” said City Councilman Shea Flinn, who was involved in the court-ordered negotiations and got high marks from Wissman for his willingness to work toward a compromise.


Shelby county schools in statehouse

Round 1, 2011: After city leaders vote to dissolve the Memphis City Schools system and force a merger with Shelby County Schools, suburban leaders and legislators win approval of a bill to delay the merger to the start of the 2013-14 school years . The bill also declared that once the merger is completed just before the 2013 school year, the state ban on new special- and municipal-school districts is lifted in the county where the merger occurs.

Round 2, 2012: Citing the 2011 law, the state attorney general says nothing can be done to start the new suburban school districts until the merger actually occurs, which halts referendums and school board elections the suburbs wanted early in 2012 to prepare the new systems to open for the 2013-14 school year. The legislature approves bills allowing the six suburban cities in Shelby County to conduct referendums and school board elections ahead of the merger. The referendums and elections are held but a federal judge nullifies them because the law applied only in Shelby County in violation of the state constitution.

Round 3, 2013: Suburbs to ask legislature to repeal the ban on new municipal districts statewide.

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