Tuesday, March 20, 2012

AG to Suburbs: No Referenda on New School Districts

Posted By on Tue, Mar 20, 2012 at 3:10 PM

State Attorney General Robert Cooper
  • State Attorney General Robert Cooper
In an action that will have significant repercussions on the ongoing merger of Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools, state Attorney General Robert Cooper has issued an opinion that, in effect, would prohibit any immediate actions by the suburbs, including the referenda scheduled for May 10.

These referenda, designed to obtain the sanction of their residents for the creation of new municipal school districts, had been planned — and cleared with the Election Commission — by the mayors and other administrative officials of Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, and Arlington, all of which cities had been advised by professional consultants that independent school systems were legally, fiscally, and educationally practical.

Basing his opinion on mandatory conditions set forth in the 2011 Norris-Todd bill, which became Public Chapter One, Attorney General Robert Cooper has found essentially that the ban on new municipal or special school districts in Tennessee must be continued until the completion of the ongoing merger of Memphis city Schools and Shelby County Schools.

He finds further that none of the enabling acts contemplated by the Shelby County suburban governments prior to the creation of new municipal districts can be undertaken until the completion of that merger — spelled out by Norris-Todd to take place no earlier than August 2013. Specifically, says Cooper, that makes the referenda scheduled for May 10 of this year null and void.

The kernel of the Attorney General’s opinion reads as follows: “Such an interpretation is buttressed by the fact that until the transition is actually effectuated, the transition cold be delayed or never finalized — thereby altering or completely negating the date allowing municipalities to proceed to establish a new district — or that the transition ultimately developed could cause the leadership or voters of a municipality to forego any attempt to establish a separate school district.”

In his opinion, provided in answer to a request by state Senator Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis), Cooper goes on to preclude any number of other possible actions prior to, and on behalf of, establishment of municipal school systems. “Each of these activities would require an action by an already-established school system,” reads the opinion.

Opinions from the state Attorney General do not have the effect of judicial fiat in Tennessee, but they are traditionally regarded by the courts as effective guides to proper action. U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays, who holds jurisdiction over the various aspects of the city/county school merger, has demonstrated by his rulings so far that he is mindful of every legitimate precedent involved — legislative, executive, or judicial.

Even before the Attorney General’s opinion, there had been a developing consensus among all the parties involved in the complex merger situation that — as David Pickler of the Transition Planning Commission had recommended — a delay of at least a year in going forward in implementing the merger (or, presumably, any of the concomitant actions associated with it) would be desirable.

General Cooper’s opinion gives further force to that reality and will doubtless impact the planning of the various persons and institutions, local and statewide, involved in the merger process.

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