NASHVILLE — As the Tennessee legislature headed toward its intended close next week, the Shelby County school-merger situation was but one of several loose ends needful of tying up.
History will surely record it as passing strange that it was only at this eleventh hour that state Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), the GOP’s majority leader in the Senate and the man who has initiated and carried forth every piece of legislation regarding the course of school-merger in Shelby County, should have sat down with members of the county’s legislative delegation to explain his intentions.
Not that things were made perfectly clear – in the Nixonian or any other sense – when on Wednesday Norris addressed what is likely to be the last weekly delegation lunch of the current legislative session.
Norris was smooth and cordial, as he always is, but his verbal style would seem to derive either from the indirect courtliness of formal Japanese grammar or from some Orwellian handbook. The bottom line: Much of what he says would seem to indicate a sense opposite to what the words he uses would normally imply.
As an example: Last year, in preparing the seminal fast-track legislation known to the rest of the world as Norris-Todd but always referred to by its principal author as Public Chapter One, Norris described it as a way to “facilitate” the then pending merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools.
Never mind that, up to the moment the courts confirmed the inevitability of the merger, following the surrender of the MCS charter, Norris, like other representatives of suburbia, had been looking for ways to forestall it –at one point floating a proposal to require an independent vote to confirm it by non-Memphis residents of Shelby County.
That, of course, was and is the method by which political consolidation of city and county must be approved, and that very method had just, mere weeks before the MCS charter surrender, resulted in a resounding No from suburban voters.
But existing state law had prescribed another course for school consolidation, which had, by the time the General Assembly convened In late January of 2011, become inevitable.
With some semantic stretching, “facilitate” might describe what Norris-Todd did to alter the process of school merger. It did, for example, provide a mechanism – in the form of a Transition Planning Commission to help guide the process and a sufficiently elongated time frame, two and a half years -- to allow for deliberate preparation.
But the clincher of Norris-Todd was its final provision – an escape clause, as it were, providing that, as of August 2013, when the merger was to be completed, the existing state ban on new municipal or special school districts would be lifted in Shelby County. In other words, the suburbs were given a way out, a way to avoid merger. “Facilitate,” in other words, might just as readily mean its opposite, “impede.”
In ruling on an abundance of litigation brought about by the pending merger, U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays conferred his approval on the general framework of Norris-Todd last summer – a fact that Norris often cites, as he did Wednesday to the Shelby delegation, though he customarily omits the fact that Mays desisted at that point from ruling on the escape-clause provision as not being“ripe.”.
In any case the word “facilitate” got another workout from Norris on Wednesday as he reviewed Norris-Todd in the context of new follow-up legislation he has introduced.
It was these new bills – both having sailed through the Senate, where Norris’ influence necessarily counts for much and both now pending in the House – that were the proximate cause of Wednesday’s session.
One bill, SB2908/HB3234, would get its final okay from House Finance Ways and Means in the hour or two after the delegation lunch, but in a form unrecognizable from the way it was introduced weeks ago before it drew flak from Republicans as well as Democrats in the House Education Committee.
As originally written, the bill would have advanced the point of eligibility for municipal school districts from the August, 2013, date called for in Norris-Todd to January 1, 2013. To most observers, it seemed an obvious way of dealing with an unexpected opinion from state Attorney General Robert Cooper that efforts to prepare for new municipal districts in Shelby County via referenda in the suburbs could not begin until such districts were enabled with the completion of the merger – August 2013 on the Norris-Todd timetable.
In his Mandarin way, Norris would patiently explain that he was not attempting to speed up the municipal-district process, as seemed to be the case, but to slow things down. (You had to be there.)
By Wednesday, that version of the bill had been modified to the point that what it now says is virtually identical to what had already been said in Norris-Todd – that municipal school districts may be created in Shelby County as of August 2013.
Norris’ official explanation is that this going over the same ground is necessitated by another portion of the state code which restates the current ban on new school districts.
Maybe so. In any case, a bill that had seemed iffy at best is now assured of passage —though even it was the subject of renewed criticism Wednesdayfrom opponents like former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) and other Memphis-area Democrats. But a W will go into the record book, not an L.
The other new Norris initiative had been —at least up to this week, when similar legerdemain might effect its rescue – controversial to the point that House Republicans, including Rep. Richard Montgomery of Sevierville, had rejected it in the form of an amendment to an existing Montgomery bill (HB 1105)concerning the regulation of school directors.
Norris’ amendment would contravene Attorney General Cooper’s opinion, which had put a halt to plans for suburban referenda this year on municipal districts, by expressly allowing them, as well as enabling school boards to be elected in suburban municipalities.
Approved in the Senate as an add-on to that chamber’s version of the bill, SB1923, the Norris amendment was regarded in the House, by GOP Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), among others, as an Open Sesame to rhe proliferation of new municipal districts everywhere in Tennessee.
Norris made it clear on Wednesday that the Senate would not recede the amendment on Thursday but would send the bill back to the House asking it to reconsider. Ultimately, he suggested, the impasse might be resolved by the two chambers in conference committee.
The senator’s linguisrtic and parliamentary dexterity, useful in such a process, was put on display several times during his dialogue with fellow Shelby-delegation members. At one point, by way of justifying the suburban wish for independent school districts, Norris intimated that such districts could find ways to interface with the post-merger Unified School District and suggested an analogy with the federal union of separate but associated states.
"You do know that led to the Civil War?” interjected state Rep. Jeanne Richadson (D-Memphis). To which Norris responded, “I’m sorry you look a things through those glasses.”
And he maintained, in an inspired flight of verbal acrobatics, that the suburban municipalities were not attempting to secede from the Unified School District in seeking their independence; rather, it was their way of seeking to “participate.”
Anyhow, he would periodically shrug in a show of resigned fatalism, the law was the law, “whether we like it or not.” The law in question, of course, was Norris-Todd, his very own creation, which, presumably, he liked just fine.
By the close of day Thursday, it may become obvious just what else ends up being added to that law.