By Richard Locker,
February 14, 2013

NASHVILLE — Shelby County’s suburban Republican state legislators filed new bills Thursday that they hope will remove court barriers to the creation of new municipal school districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington.

The main bill would repeal the 1998 statewide ban on new municipal school districts. The suburban lawmakers said they believe that and three other bills will win legislative approval, including in the House of Representatives where reluctance to allow new school districts outside of Shelby County last year led to passage of a Shelby-only law that was later struck down as unconstitutional.

A federal court ruling last November halted the movement toward the creation of six new municipal districts in the suburbs, even after they were approved by voters in local referendums in August. Suburban voters also elected their first school board members in November, before the court ruling, and the boards would have worked to open the new municipal schools late this summer when the merger of the old Memphis City and Shelby County school systems will be complete.

“I expect the House to pass it,” said Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, who is sponsoring the main bill with Senate Majority Leader Mark Morris, R-Collierville. All five suburban Republican House members from Shelby are co-sponsoring all four bills.

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, said that from his conversations with lawmakers from elsewhere, “the rest of the state would really like for Shelby County to get its school situation settled.” White chairs the House Education Subcommittee, the bill’s first stop in the House.

Although the bill says the new city school systems would not begin student instruction before Aug. 1, following approval of the state education commissioner, suburban leaders concede that the legislation won’t come in time for this fall.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said that even if the legislation is approved, he doesn’t see any way they could start schools this summer. The suburban mayors had pretty well accepted about two months ago that they would be part of the unified system for at least a year.

The second bill would increase the number of school districts permitted in a county from the current six to seven — a step necessary to have the six new districts and the unified county school system in Shelby.

The third bill would repeal the 1982 ban on the creation of new special school districts statewide. Norris, who is sponsoring this bill with White, said this is more of a backup measure in case further impediments to municipal districts arise.

“It’s not on the front burner because SSDs (special school districts) have a different set of considerations,” Norris said — primarily that SSD school boards have authority under Tennessee law to levy school taxes within the district, up to a ceiling set by the legislature for each district. Setting school taxes above that ceiling requires state legislative action.

“Municipalities already have taxing authority (through their city councils or boards of aldermen), so if they want to put the question of additional funding to their residents, they have that authority,” Norris said.

The fourth is a “caption bill” requiring student driver’s education courses to include warnings on texting while driving that will be amended later with whatever lawmakers decide. This bill, the lawmakers said, would be used to address any other issues that arise, including transfer of ownership of existing school property from the new unified school district to the suburbs in which they are located.

As a package, the bills are designed to remove all potential obstacles to the new suburban districts — a go-for-broke approach that departs from the more measured and limited statutes passed in 2011 and 2012 to delay merger of the city and county schools to this summer and allow the suburbs to create their own school systems. But key provisions of those were overturned in Memphis federal court.

Suburban mayors, who have fought to form their own school systems, were reserved in their response to the filings Thursday.

“I think we know for (the municipal schools effort) to be successful, the ban needs to be lifted statewide,” Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman said. “I think that’s probably what needs to happen for a long-term permanent solution.”

But Wissman also acknowledged that even if the legislation clears the way, legal challenges to the suburban effort are still possible.

There are still two pending issues raised by the County Commission and Memphis City Council against the suburban efforts, including one regarding whether forming municipal schools can be viewed as a return to segregation. U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays has not issued a ruling on those matters.

Unified school board member Tomeka Hart, one of the architects of the resolution to surrender the city school charter that forced the merger, said she is not surprised by the filings. “It was clear the fight for municipal school systems was going to continue and be strong.”

“Listen, people have to do what they think they need to do. I fought for the Memphis merger to protect the interests, first of Memphis, but ultimately for everyone in answer to what was getting ready to happen to Memphis City Schools if it stayed intact,” she said.

She is dismayed that leaders are investing more time working against a unified district than building it.

“Imagine if the leaders and adults and all that intelligence were spent on how to make education in Shelby County the best it could be. Imagine where we could go.”

Without having had time to read the bills, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton was cautious in his comments Thursday. “I would say however that we are treading on dangerous territory anytime we open the prospect of adding additional school districts because it was the inability of the state and the counties to fund all the many districts that led to lawsuit Tennessee Small School Systems versus McWherter.

“That brought us to the present funding formula. Every governor since that time has told me that if you tinker with any aspect, it would have statewide ramifications and land us right back in court,” Wharton said.

The Tennessee Small School Systems, an unincorporated association of 77 rural school districts, sued the state and Gov. Ned McWherter on July 7, 1988.

Reporters Clay Bailey and Jane Roberts contributed to this story.


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