Politics » Politics Feature

Open Questions

Uncertainties remain regarding school-merger and redistricting issues.



Will the lifting of the ban on special school districts for Shelby County, the key final provision of the Norris-Todd bill of 2011, be extended statewide, permitting new districts everywhere in Tennessee?

That was the prospect spoken to in a weekend talk at the Dutch Treat Luncheon, a conservative discussion group, by Shelby County Uniform School Board member Mike Wissman, who doubles as mayor of Arlington, one of the six suburban municipalities scheduled to hold May 10th referenda regarding the establishment of their own municipal school systems.

According to Wissman, such a bill, under the sponsorship of state senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), the GOP majority leader, and state representative Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), the House majority leader, will shortly be making its way through the General Assembly's subcommittee process.

The purpose of such legislation, Wissman said, would be to eliminate possible belated legal challenges to the special-school-district provision of Norris-Todd as the calendar proceeds inexorably to the fulfillment of the 2011 act's provisions. Litigation could conceivably be mounted against Norris-Todd on the grounds that it functions as a private act without the requisite consent of all parties within the affected locality.

As Wissman also noted in his Saturday appearance before the Dutch Treat group at Jason's Deli on Poplar, other issues relating to the dual questions of city/county school merger and suburban school districts are proceeding to moments of reckoning — including the matter of how and at what expense, if any, existing school structures might be transferred over to new municipal school districts.

An open forum on the subject of the school buildings was scheduled for a Tuesday night work session of the Uniform School Board. Wissman said most of the suburban municipalities, including his own, could carry out their educational plans without using all of the buildings in question.

Other complications involved in the creation of the new suburban districts would include teacher contracts, the question of whether the municipal systems would have the right to service students from adjacent unincorporated areas, and the issue of whether new suburban districts would be able to form a cohesive whole or remain separate from each other.

Teacher contracts would have to be renegotiated with officials of whatever new district had jurisdiction over their employment, Wissman said. On the matter of the unincorporated areas, there had been disagreement among members of the 21-member Transition Planning Commission, but, as Wissman noted, the six municipalities contemplating forming their own districts had based their proposals on consultants' advice that students from those areas could be served by the new schools.

Wissman pronounced himself in favor of a single special school district, including all the suburban areas. "That would suit everybody better and allow us to share the expense of transportation and other services," he said, but, as he acknowledged, "some of the suburbs are looking for their own autonomy."

Asked about the two most recent developments at the TPC, the commission's vote in favor of "Multiple Achievement Paths" for a unified city/county district, and TPC member David Pickler's call for a year's delay in implementing Norris-Todd, Wissman expressed conditional approval of both.

But he saw the Multiple Achievement Paths format as only a fallback position and thinks that suburbanites would be concerned that the board governing such an arrangement could change unpredictably and that only an independent district could allay their concerns.

Wissman said he welcomed the idea of a year's delay, but, again, as other mayors have said, he thought the forthcoming May 10th referenda in five suburban municipalities should go on as scheduled. "That way, we'll know the feeling of the populations, one way or the other."

Note: After this column was readied for print, word came of an attorney general's opinion nullifying any immediate actions by the suburbs. See breaking-news article from Tuesday. See also here and here.

• Another place where confusion remains is on the Shelby County Commission regarding the matter of post-census redistricting.

The whole months-long imbroglio will apparently have to be resolved by Chancellor Arnold Goldin next month, when he meets with attorneys representing Shelby County government as a whole, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, three commissioners engaged in a suit against the county regarding the redistricting process.

If this originally pro forma confrontation seems unduly complicated, it could quickly become more so. As of late last week, Commissioner Mike Ritz, one of the three plaintiffs in the existing case, was considering asking the commission to appoint a lawyer to oppose the county's current special attorney on redistricting, Ron Krelstein, who was hired late last year by Shelby County attorney Kelly Rayne

Ritz's contemplated resolution is based on his resistance to Krelstein's position, made public at last week's regular public meeting of the commission, that state law trumps the Shelby County charter in determining how many votes are necessary for the passage of a redistricting plan on the third of three required readings.

Tennessee statute requires only a majority of the legislative body — seven, in the case of the commission — on third and final passage. The county charter calls for a super-majority — nine, in the case of the 13-member commission — to vote for a redistricting plan on its final reading.

Ritz argued strenuously last week that Krelstein should not attempt to abandon the county charter, much less litigate against it.

If the legal situation itself resembles an impenetrable thicket, that merely reflects the ever-shifting and equally confusing alliances on the commission regarding the redistricting issue.

The plan, which Krelstein proposes to put forth on April 5th as deserving of Chancellor Goldin's approval, is one calling for 13 single-member districts and is designated 2-J. This plan at one point received nine votes, though only seven on its final reading, but, more than any other so far, Krelstein regards as expressing a commission consensus.

Ritz continues to maintain, however, that Krelstein is not entitled to disavow the charter provision for nine final votes and that the attorney could support 2-J in court without doing so.           

Is legal hair-splitting really the basis of the current standoff? Maybe not, in the judgment of several commissioners, a couple of whom attribute Ritz's pivotal switch-over to 2-O to be based on that plan's provision, in two different versions, for colleague Heidi Shafer to be located in a district where her reelection in 2014 would be imperiled.

Ritz was known to be displeased at Shafer for favoring a censure vote aimed at him some weeks ago, one based on his having used the term "bribe" to describe an acknowledged inducement that colleague Brent Taylor had loaded into a would-be compromise version of a multi-district plan.

In the event, Ritz defended himself ably in debate before the full commission, and the censure resolution was shelved, but Shafer had meanwhile cast a vote for it in committee, and she, unlike some of the others favoring censure, was in a relatively tenuous geographical situation vis-à-vis potential district lines.

In two versions of a proposed alternate redistricting plan, designated 2-O, Shafer's residence was placed, first, in a majority black inner-city district and, later, in an East Memphis district cohabited by Steve Basar, currently the GOP nominee to fill a commission vacancy. 

Neither Basar nor Shafer cared much for that prospect. While he acknowledges having had a hand in drawing some of the lines in both versions of 2-O, Ritz — who had also, like Shafer, supported Basar on March 6th — professes utter innocence of arranging any gerrymandering for personal reasons.

"I'm not her problem," Ritz maintains.

In any case, one way or another, in the presence of howsoever many teams of lawyers, Chancellor Goldin, who had hoped the commission could decide on redistricting for itself, will probably have to make the call himself on April 5th or soon thereafter.

Meanwhile, other possible redistricting variations were reportedly being prepared for the commission to look at this week.

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