City Council to Take Up Consolidation Today

On September 1, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

ANDY MEEK | The Daily News September 1, 2009 The Memphis City Council this afternoon is scheduled to discuss a proposal to set up a new charter commission to create a metro government charter. The measure is a companion resolution to one the Shelby County Commission began debating last week, with the two bodies’ work […]

ANDY MEEK | The Daily News
September 1, 2009

The Memphis City Council this afternoon is scheduled to discuss a proposal to set up a new charter commission to create a metro government charter. The measure is a companion resolution to one the Shelby County Commission began debating last week, with the two bodies’ work reflecting the support a metro charter commission would have to get from city voters and those outside the city.

The City Council’s metro charter talk will be part of the body’s executive committee session, which starts at 1 p.m. at City Hall, 125 N. Main St. For a full meeting agenda, see Page 10.

If or when

If the idea makes it to the referenda stage, it will be the first time in 30 years government consolidation has been put before voters. But that’s still a big “if” at this point.

One of the rallying points for consolidation opponents has been the possibility it would include merging the two local public school systems. Consolidation supporters such as Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. have long touted their preference for merging the governments while leaving the school systems alone, and that’s one reason the current discussion is this far along.

But the question of how schools would be affected by combining both governments continues to loom over everything else.

“The voters outside the city are never going to seriously consider any metro form of government if the Shelby County schools are included,” said state Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville. “And that’s only one of the problems. But it’s the first and largest single issue to my constituents.”

At this point, it’s still difficult to say what could or would happen to the school systems under a consolidation plan. Barring a definitive legal decision, there’s also much uncertainty over what state law envisions should occur if Memphis and Shelby County governments were to merge.

Not so clear anymore

Only a few months ago, part of the Tennessee Code dealing with the writing of a metro charter read: “The proposed metropolitan charter shall provide … for the consolidation of the existing school systems with the county and city or cities, including the creation of a metropolitan board of education, which board may be vested with power to appoint a director of schools.”

The Tennessee General Assembly amended that language this summer. But until they did so, Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn told The Daily News, the law was clear: At that point, a metro charter would have had to provide for school consolidation.

That reality might supply grist for wary consolidation opponents who have met with skepticism what Wharton and others have advocated about leaving the school systems untouched.

The Legislature since has thrown out the earlier wording and replaced it with the following: “The proposed metropolitan charter shall provide … for the consolidation of the existing school systems with the county and city or cities, including the creation of a metropolitan board of education, which board may be vested with power to appoint a director of schools, if there are no special school districts operating in the county. If one or more special school districts operate within the county, then the metropolitan charter need not provide for the consolidation of the existing school systems. If the school districts are not consolidated, then any special school district shall continue to exist as a separate entity.”

Tinge of ambiguity

The state Legislature created the Memphis school district as a special school district in the 1800s. So the new language would seem to give any metro charter commission the option to include a schools merger if the members want that.

But barring new legislative action or a court decision, Norris said there still may be maneuvering room for proponents to push for consolidation that merges the schools.

Though the new legislative language refers to special school districts, for example, the city school district does not operate the same way most special school districts do in the state. The city schools’ Board of Education does not have taxing power, relying instead on city funding from the City Council.

Special school districts elsewhere in the state usually do have that taxing power.

In another apparent reference to the special school district status in Memphis, a different portion of state law also reads: “All special school districts that are not taxing districts are abolished.”

The amendment passed this summer that takes away the mandate to include school consolidation in a metro charter could be interpreted as leaving the matter discretionary. But Kuhn said he isn’t sure about that.

“The amendment to the state law is a little tricky as to whether or not (the charter commission) would have the option,” he said. “I don’t think there are any (attorney general) opinions or (county attorney) opinions on the issue on whether or not a metro charter commission would have an option to merge the school systems if there is a special school district.”