Politics » Politics Feature

Weather Break

Stormy action on the merger front is followed by a (temporary?) lull.



It had looked for a while last week that the progress of five suburban municipalities — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, and Arlington — toward independent school systems might have suffered a double whammy.

First had come the bombshell announcement of an opinion from state attorney general Robert Cooper that the five suburbs, all of which had scheduled May 10th referenda on forming new municipal school districts, could not proceed with any such votes until city/county school merger is completed in August 2013, the date specified by the 2011 Norris-Todd bill and formally countenanced by U.S. district judge Hardy Mays, judicial overseer of the case.

That announcement, on Tuesday, was followed a day later by the unforeseen— if possibly only temporary — hobbling in the state House of Representatives of a bill by state Senate majority leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), the originator of Norris-Todd, to facilitate the suburban school systems by moving up the period of their eligibility from that August 2013 date to January 1, 2013.

The bill also would expand on Norris-Todd, which had lifted a 20-year ban on new special or municipal school districts in Shelby County, by extending the eligibility of new municipal school districts statewide as of the new date. Although this feature was apparently included in the bill as a buttress against possible litigation, it may also have aroused concerns of legislators elsewhere in Tennessee, including several of the Republicans who had approved Norris-Todd last year out of party-line loyalism.

One such, state representative Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), bluntly informed House majority leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) of his opposition when McCormick, designated as co-sponsor more or less as a formality, presented the bill Wednesday in a House Education subcommittee.

But the bill was most intensely resisted by former longtime House speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) and state representative Lois DeBerry (D-Memphis), both of whom condemned it as an attempt to muddy the waters of the Shelby County merger process. Naifeh went so far as to say, "The only thing that this bill is dealing with is segregation ... to allow those four or five districts in Shelby County to be able to form their white schools."

Given all the factors (including the obvious unfamiliarity of McCormick with the bill he was introducing), the measure was "rolled," i.e., postponed — though it was placed on the subcommittee's calendar for Wednesday of this week.

Simultaneous with the subcommittee's action last week was a decision by the Shelby County Election Commission, after consulting with state authorities, to abide by the attorney general's opinion and formally cancel the suburbs' May 10th referenda.

In the immediate aftermath of these events, Norris, the acknowledged chief strategist in Nashville for suburban-friendly legislation, chose to temporize. In an interview with the Flyer, he professed uncertainty about moving further with school-merger legislation, including the date-changing bill and a potential one he had discussed early in the session that would facilitate the transfer of school properties to new municipal districts.

"I need to consult with the folks back home," Norris said about the bill just shelved. "The context has changed. I don't know if it still works the way I hoped it would." Would he initiate any new legislation? "Perhaps. I don't know the answer to that."

Most surprisingly, Norris seemed receptive to the "Multiple Achievement Paths" model for a unified county school district — a concept that was recently approved by the Transition Planning Commission but which the suburban mayors have so far shied away from, preferring to move toward completely independent school districts.

Norris thinks, however, that the suburban schools of the future have something to gain by being under the same organizational umbrella as other institutions — city schools, charter schools, institutions taken over by the state's Achievement School District. "That's going to help them with the costs. I don't know why they don't see it," he said.

The senator did suggest a modification in the Multiple Achievement Paths model: "If, rather than those imaginary zones or blocks, you built in the municipal systems ... using the municipal districts as a component." And he said he would argue for such an outcome with the suburban mayors.

If Norris seemed disposed to compromise rather than to force the issue, so, it turned out, was the Unified School Board, which convened in a specially called meeting on Thursday night last week to consider a formal agreement between the board and county government that would invest the board with explicit ownership rights to school property enabling, or even requiring, it to be compensated for any school transfers.

Supporters of the agreement — in the main, representatives of city interests — seemed confident in advance that they could marshal 12 votes, a simple majority of the 23-member board. After some prolonged discussion, however, there were waverers, especially among the seven board members who had been appointed by the Shelby County Commission last year to join 16 board holdovers, nine from Memphis City Schools and seven from Shelby County Schools.

Typical were Chris Caldwell and Raphael McInnis, the former expressing a preference for "some adult discussion" between all parties and the latter concerned that the board not act "out of fear" but in a spirit of trust and good will.

Reading the tea leaves, holdover MCS member Jeff Warren, a supporter of the proposed agreement, decided to vote no so as to position himself as a member of the prevailing side and, thus, as someone eligible to call for a later reconsideration of the vote. The final tally, of the 18 board members present, was nine-nine, but Warren promised to call for a revote as early as Tuesday night of this week.

The movement toward compromise was firmed up even more over the weekend when Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell and Unified School Board chairman Billy Orgel, in separate remarks to members of the Shelby County Commission, met for a Saturday retreat in southeast Memphis.

Luttrell, an ex-officio member of the TPC, sees his role as that of mediator, "keep[ing] this discussion in the middle of the road," as he said Saturday, and he spoke accordingly, calling for the public to keep "emotions in harness" and noting that further moves could be expected on legislative and judicial fronts.

He then gave the suburbs some unexpectedly explicit support: "The state law allows for suburban districts, municipal districts. It appears that the suburban communities are moving in that direction. If they are going to move in that direction, I think they need to be supported."

Luttrell's declaration was followed by one from Orgel. Though he expressed a hope that the suburban municipalities would delay any action until the TPC completes its work and the board, which has final non-judicial say, declares on the shape of a unified system. As for the prospect of independent municipal school districts, Orgel said, "I don't think it's our job, as commissioners, as members of the school board, to talk against that."

In conversation later, Orgel, who had voted against the proposed property agreement on Thursday night, cited two of his reasons for doing so. He said he thought the agreement might commit the county to expenditures it could avoid otherwise, and he said he didn't want to force the issue with actions that could be regarded as provocative in Nashville, causing Norris or other legislators to introduce legislation that they might otherwise withhold.

Thus it was that, after the shocks of last week, prominent actors across the spectrum of the ongoing merger process had opted to take deep breaths rather than proceed right away to force certain issues. It remains to be seen if that's true calm or the sort that precedes the storm.

• The Shelby County Commission, too, saw some of its momentum braked. But there looked to be new turbulence ahead. After months of discussion and amendment on a resolution proposed by Commissioner Steve Mulroy that would address inhumane acts toward animals in unincorporated Shelby County and spell out penalties, the commission narrowly approved a motion by Commissioner Brent Taylor to postpone action on such a resolution indefinitely.

The debate Monday included this distinctive objection from Lee Cochran, an audience member who has made numerous appearances before the commission to oppose the resolution: "All this googly talk about men and women and dogs being on the same level doesn't go with me. ... It borders on blasphemy."

The commission, which has been deadlocked over approving a redistricting plan for itself even longer than it's been debating animal cruelty, also approved a resolution putting itself on record as favoring the county charter's insistence on a nine-vote supermajority to approve any redistricting plan rather than a state law requiring a final vote of only seven members of the 13-member body.

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