Municipal School Districts Get a Double Whammy

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Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh denounces a municipal-school-district bill as furthering "segregation."


Memphis state representative Lois DeBerry asks that the bill be rolled.


NASHVILLE -- One day after being staggered by Tuesday’s announcement of an adverse opinion regarding municipal school districts by Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper, the cause of those suburban districts in Shelby County experienced two more dramatic setbacks on Wednesday.

First, a legislative measure that would have moved up the date of eligibility for new municipal school districts from August 2013 to January 1, 2013, was denounced by opponents as racially motivated, then postponed, without action being taken, when it came up in a House subcommittee in Nashville.

Then, virtually simultaneously, the Shelby County Election Commission, acting on advice from the state Election Commission that General Cooper’s opinion be heeded, formally canceled the referenda that had already been scheduled for five Shelby County suburbs — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, and Arlington.

What Cooper had said on Tuesday, in response to a request from state Senator Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis) was that the five suburbs could not take any actions to facilitate special-school-district status until they became eligible for that status on terms established by the 2011 Norris-Todd bill that effectively governs the process of city-county school merger.

Norris-Todd had provided for August of next year as the date for completion of the merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, as well as the date for the lifting, in Shelby County only, of a ban on new special or municipal school districts in Tennessee dating from the establishment of the late former Governor Ned McWherter’s Basic Education Program a generation ago.

Subsequently, U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays had dealt with various litigations stemming from the ongoing merger, which was forced by the MCS board's action in late 2010 to surrender its charter -- an action caused, ironically, by a board majority's fear of an imminent move by SCS to achieve special-school-district status.

Judge Mays would go on to sanctin the legality of the merger, recognizing Norris-Todd as the de facto guide for the merger process.

The process at that point got under way, aided by a 21-member Transition Planning Commission that had been mandated by Norris-Todd, and by a new 23-member Uniform School Board uniting the members of the old boards of MCS and SCS, along with seven new members appointed by the Shelby County Commission.

Regarding the issue of new municipal school districts as not “ripe,” Judge Mays did not deal with it in his original comprehensive ruling.

Meanwhile, Shelby County’s municipal communities, anticipating the final phase of Norris-Todd, hired a consulting firm, Southern Educational Strategies, and — with the exception of Millington, which the consultants deemed less prepared than the others —began making plans, beginning with the scheduled May 10 referenda, for establishing new municipal school districts independent of the simultaneously developing Uniform School District.

Tuesday’s bombshell announcement by Attorney General Cooper, though his opinion was technically only advisory, effecrively scuttled the process and also would end up nullifying, at least for the time being, the effort by state Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville) to speed up the suburbs’ readiness with the ill-fated bill introduced in a House subcommittee Wednesday.

Norris had previously routed through the Senate version of the bill, which would lift the ban on new school districts statewide, without incident, but his House co-sponsor and opposite number, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) was clearly ill at ease about presenting the measure and agreed to postpone (or, in legislative parlance, “roll”) the bill when former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) and former House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry (D-Memphis) strenuously objected to it, recapping some of the arguments they had made in February 2011 when Norris-Todd itself was being pushed through to passage by a unified Republican legislative majority.

What happens next is uncertain, but one thing is fairly definite: The component of Norris-Todd regarding the creation of special or municipal school districts will almost surely qualify now as being ripe for judicial review.

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