Amended Norris Bill Passes Senate Committee, Would Stand Referendum on Its Head



Senators Brian Kelsey and Mark Norris in Senate Education Committee on Wednesday
  • JB
  • Senators Brian Kelsey and Mark Norris in Senate Education Committee on Wednesday
NASHVILLE -- Within a two-day period, the advocates of immediate merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools have seen the hopes they had invested in a forthcoming March 8 referendum to that end scrambled by a classic good cop/bad cop maneuver.

On Tuesday had come word from Governor Bill Haslam and acting Education Commissioner Patrick Smith that, while the citywide referendum should go through, the state required one “transition plan” to safeguard the rights of affected teachers and another one for general planning purposes.

Failure to comply — and the onus was extended to the boards of both MCS and SCS — could mean withholding of state funding. And there were deadlines: February 15 for plan number one, March 1 for number 2.

It was all said neatly and sweetly, but the message was clear: We — the “we” being the forces of a perhaps legitimately aggrieved establishment — Can Still Keep This From Happening.

During the course of a meeting in City Hall on Tuesday, various Democratic legislators and officials of city and county government lamented the pressure and the deadlines that went with it. But Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, the consistent defender of Memphis’ right to self-determination, said it all could be done: It would be difficult, but the good-cop conditions and deadlines could be complied with.

But on Wednesday, in a committee room in Nashville’s Legislative Plaza, the bad-cop possibility — the one that the pro-merger groups had been fearing for some time — materialized in the form of a completed and amended bill — SB25, HB 51 — from state Senate majority leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

The “bad cop” appellation should not be misunderstood. No one is more sweetly natured or courteous or accommodating than Norris — and that fact of his DNA (or his upbringing) works very well to the advantage of another of the senator’s traits: No one is more unrelenting or undeviating concerning the preservation and pursuit of an agenda which he is dedicated to.

And defense of the Shelby County schools against the threat of amalgamation with Memphis City Schools is very much a part of Senator Norris’ agenda.

Witness the amended bill that he presented to the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday and which was cleared for passage on the Senate floor Monday by a party-line vote — 6 Republicans prevailing over 3 Democrats. Should that plan — which faces rosy prospects in both Senate and House — become law and withstand the legal challenges that are sure to come, the game could well be over for the pro-merger forces. Game, set, match, tournament, and championship.

Seen dispassionately and without reference to its rights and wrongs or to the emotions of one kind or another that it will engender, the completed SB25 is a thing of beauty. It does all of the following things:

-Allows the March 8 referendum to occur without challenge, thereby avoiding one potential legal morass;
-Imposes a delay of two years and some-odd months on implementing the results of a successful election;
-Presumes to give over the very definition of those results to a 21-member commission composed as follows: the county mayor, the chair of the Memphis City Schools board and the chair of the Shelby County Schools board; 15 members appointed — five each — by the county mayor, the MSC chair, and the SCS chair; and three additional members appointed by the governor and the speakers of each legislative chamber.

(For those who are counting, that’s prohibitively top-heavy in favor of county interests, potential Republican Party allegiances, or the vested positions or self-interests of those now holding the offices in question; indeed, given various principals’ known points of view, not a single one of those 21 members could be head-counted as definitely favoring merger, while several could be safely locked in on the other side.)

To resume, the bill:

-Gives the state Department of Education the right of review; and

-(Piece de resistance!) would revoke current state prohibitions against creating municipal school districts or new special school districts at the very point of implementing the now denatured referendum results (“the beginning of the third full school year immediately following certification of the election results,” i.e, August 2013) and would (italics ours) thereby permit the creation of a special school district for the current schools in the SCS system — the casus belli which allegedly provoked the MCS board’s pro-merger forces into acting in the first place!

Clearly, Senator Norris possesses either genius or chutzpah. His bill, while ostensibly not interfering with Memphians’ right to determine the destiny of their city’s school system (which, by order of Chancery Court, had become a fait accompli anyhow), undertakes to interpret the consequences of a successful referendum so as to achieve, at a suitable interval, the very end which the referendum was meant to prevent!

To be sure, Norris’ final version of his bill dropped any provision for a final countywide vote. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to imagine what purpose would be served by one. Formal ratification of what would appear to be a sweeping county-side victory and likely nullification of the original purposes of the referendum?

The senator, of course, was characteristically gracious enough not to make any gloating claims (though some of his supporters were less diffident about doing so). Norris himself defined his measure as one that provided “enhanced self-determination” for Memphis, as “an orderly transition process,” and as an effort “to facilitate the referendum and the process to make it not only meaningful but successful.”

The only proper response to that is “Wow!”

For the record, though, Education Committee vice chair Reginald Tate of Memphis and Senator Andy Berke of Chattanooga put some demurrers into the record and voted against the bill, along with one other Democrat, Charlotte Burks of Monterey.

Berke was especially focused in his criticism. The bill had changed the rules of the game, he said. (Norris had characterized it as a new game without any pre-set rules.)

“People are always complaining about Washington trying to control us, and here we are in Nashville trying to control Memphis,” Berke said, pointing out that Governor Haslam and Commissioner Smith had already created prospective ground rules for local officials to comply with in Shelby County. “Why are we interfering?”

SCS superintendent Aitken with legislators after hearing
  • JB
  • SCS superintendent Aitken with legislators after hearing
After the meeting adjourned, Berke put it this way: “The purpose of this amendment is to try to delay this thing for three years, then have the potential for separating out the county’s [district] at the end of it anyway.”

State Representative G.A. Hardaway, who called the commission created by the bill a “joke,” had no trouble agreeing with that summation.

For his part, SCS superintendent John Aitken, who was on hand for the vote, was relieved, counting the bill “a great victory for us.” Speaking for himself and, by proxy, for MCS superintendent Kriner Cash, with whom he had discussed the situation at length by telephone on the way up to Nashville Wednesday, Dr. Aitken said, “I appreciate the effort and the planning process. I think that’s what Superintendent Cash and I were both were asking for. This bill allows it, and now we’ll see what the House does.”

The House, which was scheduled to take up the bill on Thursday, is expected to act in the same spirit as the Senate, after which the bill will go to Governor Haslam for final action.

The governor summoned members of the Capitol press pack for a quick briefing after the Senate committee's action, telling them that, while he appreciated both the creation of a "process" and the bill's apparent acknowledgement that the issue was a local one, his "gut feeling" was that the extended time frame provided by the bill might put MCS "in limbo." And, pending further reflection and possible elaboration from Norris, Haslam withheld judgment on the bill's providing a window for creation of a new special school district.

Meanwhile, Chairman Myron Lowery of the Memphis City Council announced that the council’s February 1 regular meeting would be reconvened at 4:30 Thursday “to consider any unfinished business…or any emergency option permitted by any previously adopted resolution or ordinance.”

Among other things, that probably means that the council will complete a prior action that was left conditional on the results of the March 8 referendum, and would take an up-or-down vote to directly endorse the MCS board’s December 20 action in favor of surrendering its charter.

Some believe that such a vote would invoke another portion of state law and directly enable the dissolution of the MCS charter, thereby accomplishing an automatic merger of the two school systems.

An end run around Norris’ end run, as it were, and, like Norris’ bill and, for that matter, like doubtless many other actions to come on both sides, fodder for the courts.

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