Politics » Politics Feature

Late Innings

Those for and against municipal school districts hung on the outcome in Nashville.

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"As I said back in the very beginning, we're in this for the long haul!" That was Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald in Nashville last week, responding to a question as to how he would react if his city was forced to remain within the confines of the Shelby County Unified School District for at least a year before it could legally take steps to create its own municipal school district.

McDonald, along with Arlington mayor Mike Wissman, Collierville mayor Stan Joyner, and other suburban officials had just patiently sat through hearings of the House finance ways and means committee, which ultimately would clear House Bill 3234/Senate Bill 2908 for passage. As originally written by Senate majority leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), its prime sponsor, the bill would have advanced the date for suburban municipalities to become eligible for new school districts from the August 2013 date provided in last year's Norris-Todd bill to January 1, 2013.

Increasing bipartisan doubts among legislators concerning the effect of such a bill upon the rest of the state had caused it to be moderated, however, and the version just approved by House Finance merely repeated the Norris-Todd eligibility date of August 2013.

Norris' line on the utility of merely repeating the provision has been that to do so potentially addresses duplications in the former state law that prohibited new municipal or special school districts. Consultant Jim Mitchell, also on hand in Nashville last week, toed that line, and so did McDonald, who has become the de facto spokesman for the suburban push for municipal school districts.

Even so, it appeared to neutral observers that the impetus toward municipal districts could be stalled, especially if another Norris initiative authorizing referenda this year to enable such districts failed to gain approval in the House, as appeared possible. (See Flyer cover story,"Nashville Hillbillies.)

Norris took up the matter of the two pending bills in an address to members of the Shelby County delegation last Wednesday. The GOP leader was smooth and cordial, as he always is, but his verbal style would seem to derive either from the indirect courtliness of formal Japanese grammar or from some Orwellian handbook. The bottom line: Much of what he said would seem to indicate a sense opposite to what the words he used would normally imply.

As an example: Last year, in preparing the seminal fast-track legislation known to the rest of the world as Norris-Todd but always referred to by its principal author as Public Chapter One, Norris described it as a way to "facilitate" the then pending merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools.

Never mind that, up to the moment the courts confirmed the inevitability of the merger, following the surrender of the MCS charter, Norris, like other representatives of suburbia, had been looking for ways to forestall it — at one point floating a proposal to require an independent vote to confirm it by non-Memphis residents of Shelby County.

That, of course, was and is the method by which political consolidation of city and county must be approved, and that very method had just, mere weeks before the MCS charter surrender, resulted in a resounding no vote from suburban voters.

But existing state law had prescribed another course for school consolidation, which had, by the time the General Assembly convened in late January 2011, become inevitable.

With some semantic stretching, "facilitate" might describe what Norris-Todd did to alter the process of school merger. It did, for example, provide a mechanism — in the form of a Transition Planning Commission to help guide the process and a sufficiently elongated time frame, two and a half years — to allow for deliberate preparation.

But the clincher of Norris-Todd was its final provision — an escape clause, as it were, providing that, as of August 2013, when the merger was to be completed, the existing state ban on new municipal or special school districts would be lifted in Shelby County. In other words, the suburbs were given a way out, a way to avoid merger. "Facilitate," in other words, might just as readily mean its opposite, "impede."

In ruling on an abundance of litigation brought about by the pending merger, U.S. district judge Hardy Mays conferred his approval on the general framework of Norris-Todd last summer — a fact that Norris often cites, as he did Wednesday to the Shelby delegation, though he customarily omits the fact that Mays desisted at that point from ruling on the escape-clause provision as not being "ripe."

In any case, the word "facilitate" got another workout from Norris on Wednesday as he reviewed Norris-Todd in the context of the new follow-up legislation still pending.

The House bill which Norris has attempted to amend with explicit authority for the suburbs to conduct referenda would contravene an earlier opinion by Attorney General Robert Cooper which had put a halt to plans for such referenda this year. Though the House was still being recalcitrant about accepting the Norris amendment and has continued to be so, Norris was hopeful that the impasse might ultimately be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee this week.

That's the same clock that McDonald et al. are nervously watching.

Meanwhile, a Shelby County Commission majority has acted to intervene in the legislative debate after two other bodies had considered doing so without acting.

After a brief regular meeting Monday that had been notable only for Commissioner Henri Brooks' quibble about whether protocol had been followed in a committee meeting last Wednesday, Commissioner Steve Mulroy unloosed a bombshell resolution that would put the commission on record, 8-5, as opposing any new legislative tinkering in Nashville affecting the ongoing Shelby County school-merger process.

A similar resolution, moved by Transition Planning Commission member Jim Boyd, had narrowly failed passage at last Thursday's meeting of the 21-member TPC.

Mulroy's resolution directly addressed Norris' two pending initiatives, and, noting that the legislature is nearing the end of its session and that its actions are fast-moving and flexible, Mulroy went on to amend his resolution with the phrase "or any bill speeding up the process for municipal school districts to form."

Citing the fact that Norris-Todd is in place and has the imprimatur of presiding judge Mays, Mulroy said, "The process we have in place is adequate, and we don't need further interference by Nashville."

Monday's vote came as a surprise add-on. Proponents of such a resolution had been ready to hold a vote at the commission meeting of two weeks ago but held back when two Democratic members expected to vote for the measure failed to attend. On Monday, all Democrats and Republican Mike Ritz, a resolution supporter, were on board.

Millington Republican Terry Roland attempted to object to the add-on but was overruled by commission chairman Sidney Chism.

The commission majority's action, the first of its kind, came in the wake not only of last week's aborted action by the TPC but of an earlier decision by the Unified School Board of Shelby County not to approve a strong resolution on the need for compensating the county for any school buildings transferred to municipal school districts. The board's vote had been by a narrow margin.

• District Attorney General Amy Weirich, the Republican incumbent who has been as publicly ubiquitous as her Democratic opponent, Carol Chumney, has been hard to find, ventured on Saturday into the hard-right domain of the Dutch Treat Luncheon.

After speaking to the group's monthly meeting at Jason's Deli on Poplar and having just explained that she ordinarily received "a lot of weird phone calls, a lot of weird email, and a lot of weird mail," Weirich was asked a potential stumper by Lee Cochran, a Dutch Treat regular, who wondered out loud: Would she arrest "the feds" if they "break our Bill of Rights"?

Unfazed, Weirich responded that she doesn't "shy away" from tough actions. "Nobody's above the law, and nobody's below the law. I can tell you, Ed Stanton, our wonderful U.S. attorney, feels the same way, and we work together very closely with the sheriff ... but yes, if Ed Stanton steps out of line or breaks the law, game on!"

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