The municipal-school-district bill that stumbled in a state House subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Nashville last week will move on to the full Education Committee, but — and it’s a real “but” — the legislators who passed it forward Wednesday in the Education general subcommittee, both Democrats and Republicans, made it clear they had doubts about it and would expect a full vetting.
In fact, Rep. Richard Montgomery (R-Sevierville), the Education chairman, granted a request by Rep. Lois DeBerry (D-Memphis) for a full hearing on the bill, complete with “experts” on all sides of the issue and promised “whatever sufficient time we can agree on” for the process.
The measure (Senate Bill 2908; House Bill 3234) would lift the existing ban on new municipal school districts in Tennessee , not just in Shelby County as provided for in last year’s Norris-Todd bill, and would advance the date of eligibility from August 2013, as specified in Norris-Todd, to January 1, 2013.
While the new bill's chief sponsor, state Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville),has argued that his intent was to create an environment in which the various parties to the ongoing school-merger controversy in Shelby County could "take their time" in working through it, others, notably the bill's critics, see the measure as an obvious attempt to expedite five Memphis suburbs' independence from the county's newly formed United School District.
The bill was moved without incident through the state Senate Education Committee earlier this month by Norris, the Senate Majority Leader who was also the primary author of Norris-Todd. The earlier bill, fast-tracked in February 2011 on a party-line vote, had imposed new state controls on the course of city-county school merger in Shelby County.
Norris’ opposite number, Rep. Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), the House Majority Leader, agreed to co-sponsor the new bill advancing the date for municipal districts, but when McCormick introduced it in the House Education subcommittee last week, his unfamiliarity with the measure and discomfort in presenting it were both obvious.
Action on the bill that day had taken place in the immediate aftermath of state Attorney General Robert Cooper’s opinion that the five Memphis suburbs attempting to hold May 1 referenda on new school districts could not do so, or take any action regarding the proposed new districts, until the August 2013 date of school merger spelled out in Norris-Todd. In a further complication, the Shelby County Election Commission was even then meeting to formally cancel the scheduled referenda in voluntary compliance with Cooper’s opinion.
Besides all these unfavorable circumstances, the bill ran into vocal opposition in the Education subcommittee. Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) denounced the bill as furthering “segregation” in the creation of what he called “white school districts” by five Shelby County municipalities — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, and Arlington. And Rep. Lois DeBerry (D-Memphis) referred to both the new bill and Norris-Todd as disruptions in the comity of Shelby County.
Even more ominously, Rep. Bill Dunn, a subcommittee member and a Republican from Knoxville, announced that he might very well choose to oppose the bill. It was becoming clear that Norris and other Shelby County suburban legislators could not necessarily count on the party-line harmony that had allowed Norris-Todd to speed through to passage last year.
“Rolled” (postponed) last week, the bill came up again Wednesday in what would be the last scheduled meeting of the year for the House Education subcommittee.
Once again, McCormick introduced it, announcing to Rep. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), the subcommittee chair, “Mr. Chairman, I’ll try to get through with this one real quick so you can get through with your calendar.”
It wouldn’t go down that easy. Naifeh objected: I just can’t let this bill fly through without something being said about it. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m not going to say what I did last week. It got myself and the Leader – both of us got some press we didn’t want….We’re trying to get less government, and this is just going to make more school systems. I just think we’re going the wrong direction with this, and I just hope you think about it when you vote.”
That was followed up by Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), the House Democratic caucus chair: “I just want to make it perfectly clear that what we’re doing here is involving ourselves in Shelby County’s business.” Quoting House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) on the theme that “government is best at the lowest level,” he said that proceeding with school merger should be the responsibility of “the Shelby County Unified Whatever-they’re-Gonna-Call-It… where government should occur.” Of HB3234, he said, “This is not right, and I can’t support it.”
Again, as in the previous meeting, Dunn spoke up, pointing out that the bill required further discussion: “Since this is the last [subcommittee] meeting, that discussion may happen at the next level. In fact, if it doesn’t happen at the next level, I’m not voting for something I don’t understand all the ramifications [of].”
Dunn mentioned the still unresolved issue of how existing school buildings, which “it seems Shelby County owns,” might be made over to new municipal districts in Shelby County. “Do they get the school building automatically, or do they have to buy them from the county? “There are a lot of questions…I’m torn on this… At the next level I’m expecting a through vetting on this before I’ll vote on it.”
Now McCormick weighed in, terming what Dunn had said “a reasonable request” and speaking of the school-facility issue as “a mountain to climb.” The GOP Leader said, “I assume they’ll have to negotiate with the current school system to see if they’ll allow them to take these buildings over, and if they wouldn’t, they’d have to build new ones, which would be very expensive…There are a number of obstacles to get through. It’s not as simple as just declaring you’re a new school system.”
And, besides, he added, “The law does have statewide application.”
Dunn expressed a hope that “perhaps at the next level we have some experts outside the fray of Shelby County …who can speak to this.” And he reprised several of the key points that have vexed Shelby Countians, wondering if individual municipal districts could “band together” and if they would have to “leave pockets” of unincorporated Shelby County outside their purview.
DeBerry quickly said, “I agree with Representative Dunn.” She said she talked with Senator Norris concerning his further intentions regarding the bill and would attempt to get further clarification from him later in the week. Referring to Norris Todd, she said everything had “started with this one piece of legislation that just tore Shelby County up. I don’t want to be a part of it.”
She then asked Montgomery, chair of the full Education Committee, to provide for a full and “fair” hearing on SB 20-8/HB 3234. The chairman promptly concurred, offering “a commitment from me” for such a hearing, one to which both city and county interests in Shelby County could send representatives. McCormick concurred. “I don’t have any problem with it.”
There were two attempts at the Last Word Wednesday. One was Naifeh’s: “This did start when we started this General Assembly last year, and there’s been turmoil in education ever since. We have no business fooling around in Memphis and Shelby County’s business….they don’t need us to tell them what they need to do.”
And another attempt came from Rep. Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett), who said the suburban municipalities “have been denied a right to vote twice by litigation and lawsuits,” and the current bill was meant to remedy that.
But the very terms in which Wednesday’s discussion was couched indicated that issues beyond SB 2908/HB 33234 could well be addressed when the discussion on the bill resumed, issues like that of state vs. local control that were largely disregarded when Norris-Todd was being fast-tracked last year.
Whatever happens will take place on Tuesday, April 3. That’s the date of next week’s Education Committee meeting.