The specter which caused the 2010 charter surrender of MCS gets little more than shrugs now.

By Jackson Baker, MemphisFlyer.com
February 27, 2013

Mark Norris was flabbergasted, too.

“You mean they no longer want to tar and feather me!” he said in the aftermath of Tuesday night’s meeting of the Shelby County Unified School Board in Memphis — in the aftermath, really, of almost two and a half years of unrest over city/county school merger, during which Norris figured in many Memphis educational circles as an arch-villain.

The influential Republican state Senator from east Shelby County, who serves as majority leader in his chamber, is after all the bringer of most of the suburban-friendly education bills that have antagonized opponents of independent school districts in the Memphis suburbs since late 2010, when it seemed likely that legislative elections results that year would make it possible for the old Shelby County Schools system to achieve special-school-district status.

It was that threat which generated a sense of panic on the then Memphis City Schools board — so much of one that a majority of MCS members would vote to surrender their charter, thereby starting the long and contentious process which has generated suits and counter-suits and federal court orders and continuing efforts by six suburban municipalities to secede from the soon-to-be unified school district and form municipal school districts for themselves.

And what prompted Norris’ mock exclamation on Wednesday was the realization, which will surely soon be dawning on everybody else, that one of the bills he has introduced in the current session, SB1355 —which, in the words of its defining caption, “lifts prohibition on creation of new special school districts” — has encountered no opposition to speak of, and was in effect given a pass Tuesday night by the divided but Memphis-dominated Unified school board, which had voted to oppose three other bills by Norris, specifically including one, SB1353, that is the senator’s latest attempt to get authorization for municipal school bills in the suburbs.

And now it seemed that SB355, a bill that would lift the statewide ban on special school districts, the very kind of bill which was deemed such a threat in late 2010 as to cause the MCS charter surrender, was looked at as something harmless.

“I’m amazed,” said Norris. “Is it possible that the $78 million [an annual “maintenance-of-effort” sum, payable to MCS, which the courts saddled the City of Memphis with] was the only thing all of that was about?”

Funding questions were, in fact, at the heart of city concerns in 2010, and they were not limited to the matter of the M.O.E. The fear of many in the MCS orbit was that a bill lifting a 1982-vintage ban on new special school districts statewide would, by enabling any new districts with taxing authority,end up eroding the funding base available to MCS from the county’s general education fund.

Whether well-founded or not, that was one of the major concerns expressed by advocates of charter surrender.

So what’s different about special-district legislation in 2013? The fact of merger, in many ways a de facto reality already (there is, under court order, a common board, after all) and destined to become, as of July 1, totally official.

As one legislator, an earnest advocate of charter surrender in 2010, explained it in Nashville on Wednesday, should the county suburbs press for a special district now and succeed in that aim, they would be splitting off from an existing all-county unit and, taxing authority or no taxing authority, would continue to be fully financially liable to that county unit.

In 2010, as we would all subsequently learn, Memphis City Schools was a special school district, SCS was the official county unit, and it was MCS that was paying a separate city levy, along with its contributions to the county general fund. Should the old SCS re-constitute itself as a new special school district under newly enacted legislation — SB1355, say — those roles would be reversed. (In one of the crowning ironies, the de facto Memphis system would be the county system and, as such, entitled to full pro rata education funding from the suburbs.)

The same fiscal logic would be in play, of course, should SB1353, with its enabling of new municipal school districts, pass. But, for all the charm that the municipal route might have for one or two of the suburbs — Germantown and Collierville, say — the easiest route for the old SCS jurisdictions as a whole would be to continue in their former guise, which, as of now, is still their administrative framework.

Contemplating the logic of all this, Norris confessed that he was, by virtue of being caught by surprise, nowhere near to having a legislative head count on the prospects for passage of SB1355. Up until now, he has been focusing his efforts on the municipal schools bill, SB1353. For him, SB 1355 has been a fall-back, a throw-in to the rest of his education package, or, as he put it, part of a “catch-all.”

It could well be that both he and the representatives of the suburbs he has so faithfully striven for will still concentrate on the municipal-schools bill. But Norris made a point of noting that 2011’s Norris-Todd Act (or, as he calls it, Public Chapter One) was worded so as to lift the ban on both kinds of new districts, municipal or special, at least in Shelby County.

It was the county-specific aspects of his 2012 follow-up fast-track legislation that forced U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays to declare that bill unconstitutional. And, like Norris-Todd itself, it was drawn that way to placate potential objections from friendly but dubious legislators statewide.

Will these same legislators be willing to consider a statewide lifting of the ban on special school districts this year? That remains to be seen, as it remains to be seen whether a majority of legislators elsewhere would favor the enabling of new municipal districts.

But the Tennessee School Boards Association is leery of municipal districts and supportive of special districts. CLASS (the Coalition of Large Area School Systems) is resistant to municipal districts but benevolently neutral toward new special districts. And now, it would seem, the Memphis and Shelby County Unified Board can be added to that indulgent list.

As they say, watch this space.

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