In steering legislation through the General Assembly, at what was literally the eleventh hour, that enabled Memphis suburban municipalities to vote this year on creating their own school districts, Norris has probably advanced the schedule for creating such districts by a full year, and that is crucial.
Had not a House-Senate conference committee finally okayed on Friday Norris’ amendment to a bill by state Rep. Richard Montgomery (R-Sevierville), HB1105/SB`1923, which originally had nothing to do with Shelby County, the mid-March opinion by state Attorney General Robert Cooper on the unconstitutionality of a suburban vote this year would have stood.
Without the passage of the amended Montgomery bill, the suburbs would have been forced to wait until August 2013 even to launch their initiatives and, like it or not, would have had to spend the 2013-2014 school year within an all-Shelby County Unified District.
Although, as Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, unofficial spokesperson for the municipal-school movement, has vowed, he and other suburban leaders in Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, Arlington, and Millington would have kept trying, the enforced year-long membership in a Unified District would inevitably have dissipated their momentum.
Residents of those communities might have developed second thoughts in the course of a school year in which academic affairs conceivably could have gone smoothly, with attendance zones functioning as usual, and with the possibility that a known quantity like current county superintendent John Aitken might then have been hired as superintendent for the Unified District.
Suburban voters could also have seen their resolve for independent school systems progressively weakened by alternative forecasts of tax levies and other expenditures conspicuously less rosy and likely more realistic than those that were presented to them this past year by their consultants at Southern Educational Strategies.
Who knows what would have happened? Norris has kept it from happening with some typically sophisticated sleight-of-hand. And he was aided by lackluster performance from potential opponents in the legislature and elsewhere.
The Senate Majority Leader’s insistence on sticking with another piece of school-related legislation initiated by himself, HB3234/SB2908, despite that bill’s having been neutered into meaninglessness, had puzzled onlookers, but this past week’s denouement may have clarified Norris’ strategy.
That other bill, which had begun as an ostensible effort to advance the date of eligibility for suburban districts from August 2013 to January 1, 2013, was finally moved through the legislature in a form that merely repeated the August 2013 date and restated the terms of the existing Norris-Todd Act of 2011.
But in negotiations with Democratic legislators, specifically the two who were named to the conference committee for the now-altered Montgomery bill that opened the door to suburban referenda in 2012, the parallel bill by Norris, meaningless in its own terms, became something of a red herring, a diversion.
Specifically, state Rep. Antonio Parkinson and state Senator Reginald Tate, the two Memphis Democrats who were named to the conference committee, seemed to suffer from some confusion as to which bill did what and which bill seemed to have incurred resistance and even, it almost seemed, which bill they were supposed to be working on.
At one point Norris appears to have indicated to Parkinson, who had inquired about a resolution from the Shelby County Commission opposing the referendum initiative, that he, Norris, had communicated with Commissioner Steve Mulroy, sponsor of that resolution, and “worked it out,” reassuring Mulroy that the bill in question did not alter the scheme of things.
Tate, too, would later indicate that he believed the bill before the conference committee, the one originally by Montgomery on an unrelated issue regarding Tennessee school boards but now amended to authorize suburban referenda in Shelby County, made no fundamental alterations in the Shelby County situation.
Whether convinced on the point or not, both Parkinson and Tate would sign the conference committee report on HB1105/SB1923, the amended Montgomery bill,allowing it to be presented to the full House on Friday as unanimously approved, a fact diminishing potential opposition on the floor to a general measure which, in an amended clause relating only to Shelby County, specifically countered the Attorney General’s opinion and authorized the very 2012 referenda which Cooper had deemed unconstitutional.
The bill passed 61-25 in the House, where there was more confusion as to which of two measures was being considered, and seemed assured of passage on Monday in the Senate.
As for the conversation between Norris and Mulroy in which things were allegedly “worked out,” the Memphis county commissioner insists that no such conversation, or any conversation at all between himself and Norris, ever took place.
Mulroy says he did receive an email from Norris informing him, accurately, that HB3234/HB 2908 made no fundamental changes and advising him not to worry. The email made no mention, however, of HB1105/HB1923, the now-amended Montgomery bill that authorized immediate suburban efforts to create municipal school districts, and it was that bill, of course, which was the actual subject of the conference committee report, and which had been the subject of the County Commission’s resolution of opposition.
It is a moot question as to whether Norris actively fomented confusion concerning the actual meaning of the legislation which surrogates finally guided through the House on Friday, after two aborted earlier attempts to have his amendment accepted there.
He may merely have taken advantage of the fact of confusion regarding two distinctly different bills. He may even have been relatively open and above-board in playing his hand and can plead in all candor that it’s not his fault if others misread his cards.
In any case, what’s done is done, the suburbs will apparently get to vote this year and to have their independent districts the year after, and the Unified School District will most likely kick off in August 2013 without participation by suburban Shelby County schools.
All of this is for better or for worse and can be argued either way. It is a stretch, however, to suggest that it was inevitable.