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Bill eases schools creation

Sara McManamy-Johnson sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 10:05 PM

A bill that would allow more municipalities to create new school systems is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.

House Bill 1288, co-sponsored by Rep. Mark Pody, eases restrictions enacted in 1998 that limit the creation of school districts to municipalities located in counties with transitional planning commissions.

Under this bill, that limitation is lifted.

Both houses of the state legislature approved the bill Monday, with the House voting 70-24 and the Senate following with a 24-5 vote.

Haslam, former mayor of Knoxville, has indicated he will sign it into law.

Pody said although the law would apply statewide, the bill was targeted for Shelby County, where suburban areas are fighting a merger with Memphis City Schools.

“Normally I am just one to let the locals take care of things like this, but the fight wasn’t fair,” said Pody.

The city boards of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington all approved new districts and sales tax increases to fund them last summer, then elected school boards last fall, but that process was invalidated by a federal court ruling on Nov. 27.

After the Nashville votes, Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner and Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said their city boards will proceed as quickly as possible with passing new school ordinances and calling for new referendums.

"Certainly I think we're all relieved that we now have in place the legislation that would not seem vulnerable to any challenges of constitutionality and that in our view allows, when the governor signs it, our municipalities to proceed with a very specific process that we've done before and will do again with our communities and to get on about the business of municipal schools opening in August of 2014," Goldsworthy said.

As for the potential for further legal challenges, Joyner said, "If we hit those roadblocks, we'll go through them with the same resolve we've faced all the other roadblocks."

Shelby County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz and commissioner Steve Mulroy of Memphis each said Monday they would continue to weigh legal challenges to block separation by the suburbs from the county system.

"It's disappointing that statewide, the law for public education for decades is being overturned because of some complaints from suburban Shelby County," Mulroy said. "It will lead to more expensive, more fragmented, often more segregated school systems."

The bill repeals a 1998 Tennessee law that prohibited the creation of new municipal school districts that did not exist at the time. Both chambers voted after relatively brief discussions that focused on funding and the potential for proliferation of new districts.

In the House, Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who raised concerns last year about the 2012 municipal school bill, said he had "received an email from an official in Shelby County" who he didn't identify urging him "not to voice your concerns for everyone to hear." But Dunn spoke anyway, saying he is concerned about the bill's future impacts. "I think we're going to see some problems coming down the road," particularly with funding and the enrollment of children who live outside the new districts, Dunn said, before voting against the bill.

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, the bill's House sponsor, said the measure does not address whether school buildings may be transferred among districts, an issue that may arise if the suburbs try to take existing county schools in their borders. But suburban legislators have said they will have a bill next year if that issue arises. In the Senate, under questioning by colleagues, Sen. Mark Norris, the Senate sponsor from Collierville, acknowledged that state funding for schools "follows the student" away from the county school system to the new districts.

Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, attempted to make sure that senators from elsewhere knew that the bill will allow new municipal districts to pull away from their county systems, or allow existing special school districts to convert to municipal districts. He asked Norris, "This bill would allow, for instance, Farragut to have its own school system and put of Knox County Schools?" Norris confirmed that Farragut, an incorporated Knoxville suburb, is on a list of 29 cities that have sufficient populations to create their own districts under other requirements in state law.

"This is a mistake and many of you will be asking yourselves later why did I get involved in what is essentially a local dispute in Shelby County over education and funding of education," Kyle said. "I recall that the ban on new municipal school districts was done because it was thought that new systems would rain money away from existing districts." The bill resulted from a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Samuel "Hardy" Mays Jr. last Nov. 27 that the 2012 state law enabling referendums was in violation of the state constitution because it effectively applied only to Shelby County. Therefore, it was essentially a "private act" of the legislature that should have required either approval by the County Commission or by a local referendum. As a result, the new bill applies statewide, allowing new municipal school systems to be created wherever they can meet student population and other requirements that exist elsewhere in state law.

Unlike last year, the push for new school districts in Shelby County had an easy ride in the Legislature, sailing through committees in both the House and Senate. Members of the House last year were particularly concerned that a statewide bill would lead to new districts elsewhere, with duplicative administrative staffs and support services within the same counties and higher taxes. Even after the new bill becomes law, at least one more potential legal issue remains -- legal challenges on U.S. constitutional issues over whether allowing new MSDs in Shelby County would violate civil-rights protections because they may lead to more racial segregation in the county's public schools.

After the Nov. 27 ruling, the suburbs requested a resumption of negotiations aimed at reaching a settlement. The sides reached agreement on many provisions that would have led to suburban charter schools run by the municipalities, but the suburbs pulled out of negotiations on Feb. 8, citing an impasse on a few crucial issues like open enrollment and funding. At that point, they began seeking the new legislation allowing them to proceed with new districts.

This was the third consecutive year that the fight over Memphis and Shelby County Schools has been before the state legislature in Nashville, and it resulted from years of efforts by the county school system to pass legislation converting it to a special school district under state law.

A special school district would have allowed the school system's boundaries to remain fixed against a Memphis takeover of schools after annexation into the city.

When Republicans won control of the legislature and the governor's office in 2010, the Memphis City School board -- fearing that the suburban Republicans would finally push through a bill allowing the county school system to convert to a special school district -- hurriedly voted to surrender its charter and force a merger with the SCS.

Memphis residents also approved the charter surrender in a referendum. In response, suburban Republicans won state legislative approval of a plan that deferred the effective date of the merger to the upcoming 2013-14 school year and set up a unification planning process. That bill also began the process toward lifting the ban on new municipal and special school districts in Shelby County.

The litigation process landed in Mays' courtroom with a 2011 lawsuit filed by suburban interests aimed at preventing Memphis from forcing countywide schools consolidation by dissolving Memphis City Schools. Mays issued a ruling in August 2011 that said Memphis had acted appropriately under state and federal laws, and that the county needed to reorganize the Shelby County Board of Education to give Memphis residents proper representation.

 – The Commercial Appeal contributed to this report via MCT.

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