Norris Lays It Out 

Part I of the Flyer Interview: The GOP legislator explains his opposition to school-system merger but embraces another consolidation plan.

Norris hosting a reception during inaugural weekend in Nashville


Norris hosting a reception during inaugural weekend in Nashville

NASHVILLE — The bottom line with state senator Mark Norris of Collierville on the standoff between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools: Yes, his legislation to mandate separate city and county votes on merger of the two systems (via transfer of MCS authority to SCS) is going forward in the General Assembly.

As the Republican majority leader in the Senate, Norris is well-placed to expedite passage of the legislation (Senate Bill 25), especially in that state representative Beth Harwell of Nashville, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, the General Assembly's other legislative chamber, has apparently promised to fast-track the bill in the House.

House majority leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga (a native Memphian, by the way) told the Flyer Friday that passage could occur within a week after the General Assembly, which reorganized last week, returns from a three-week hiatus on February 7th.

That would be considerably before a referendum of Memphis residents, ordered last week by Chancellor Walter Evans, could be carried out regarding the proposed transfer of administrative authority for what is now Memphis City Schools to the Shelby County Schools system.

Such a referendum was voted by a 5-4 vote of the MCS board on December 20th and would apparently go forward on March 8th unless, said Shelby County Election Commission chair Bill Giannini, the SCEC seeks a declaratory judgment not to. That, said Giannini, would occur only in the event of a revote this week to rescind the earlier vote by the MCS board after its discussion of a "compromise" plan presented last week by the SCS board.

But Norris, an attorney, offers this caution: "I would think that timely passage of my proposed bill would render that [the outcome of a charter-transfer referendum] moot. I doubt that they would have that referendum. If they did, I think it would be a nullity."

That's lawyer-ese for saying the Norris bill would take precedence over a successful referendum, and, of course, that view would undoubtedly be tested in a court proceeding. No doubt, in several court proceedings — and yes, that means the passage of much time in potential appeals and rehearings and the like. Possibly years.

Norris bases his view on the 2010 Tennessee Code: Title 49 (Education), Chapter 2 (Local Administration), Part 12 (Consolidation of Systems), sections 1201 through 1209.

The method prescribed there for consolidation of school systems within a given jurisdiction is quite similar to the plan submitted to the MCS board last week by the SCS board, as well as to SB 25, Norris' now pending bill. The major difference is that the county board's plan calls for aggregated voting of city and county residents to effect a merger if a joint planning board should recommend one, while Norris' version provides for separate votes by city and county residents, with positive votes by both required for merger.

A caveat: The first section of 49-2-12 begins: "In all counties of this state wherein separate school systems are maintained by the county and by one (1) or more incorporated municipalities or one (1) or more special school districts, there may be created and established a unification educational planning commission." [Our italics.] It remains for lawyers to argue and the courts to decide how binding that preliminary "may be" is. Subsequent sections, describing the elaboration of the proposed consolidation process, employ the locution "shall be."

Norris recalls how he came upon this legal precedent, which is directly incorporated into SB 25. He says he was asked by Memphis mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell to participate in ultimately unsuccessful efforts to arrange a compromise solution before what Norris regards as the MCS board's "precipitous action" on December 20th. Norris says he saw a subsequent joint press conference by the two mayors regarding their possible oversight of a transition as a request for "expedited legislation that would provide a plan."

He continues: "I went to the Tennessee Code. I opened the Education volume, and I said, 'Guess what? It's already here. It's already in the law.' I talked with the mayors and I said, 'You don't really need to reinvent the wheel. There's already a planning process. There's already a period of time. It's already in the book: Who gets to appoint whom to the planning commission, how the report is generated."

The current contrary course being pursued by the MCS board is deplored by Norris. "I feel fairly certain that the path they're on, whether I have legislation or not, is likely unconstitutional, the way they're going about it. And so it's damaging to the system, you know? Meanwhile, back at the schools, who's teaching the kids? That's sad. That's very sad. And I think it's unnecessary."

As of last Friday, Norris professed optimism about a compromise. "I'm told they're on again, off again, with a resolution between the two boards, and, as I said earlier, we don't want to do anything to disrupt that. If they can reach agreement on their own, which includes rescission, that is a better course of action."

Norris has views that would surprise those who regard him, along with SCS board chairman David Pickler, as an advocate of special-school-district status for SCS. He says he isn't an advocate for that plan and opposes legislation to that end: "I think they're a thing of the past. I don't think it's a good idea."

Norris recalls advocating a variation of the special-school-district formula for the county in the mid- to late-'90s when he was education committee chair of the Shelby County Commission and then the commission chair. That, he says, was different — a prospective arrangement whereby both city and county systems would be split into smaller sub-districts.

"Because Memphis City was already a special district, we were told that you'd have to lift the ban against special districts in order to reconfigure the city into three or four smaller special districts — let's call it subdivide — and Shelby County at the same time could also be a special district. So what we had in mind was a 'three to five system,' i.e., involving three city sub-districts, two county sub-districts.

"Basically, what we were told [was] that an effective system should not exceed 50,000 students. Sometimes you'll hear them talk today about the optimum size being 30,000. We were on the cutting edge in 1995, and for several years after, on the 'small' issue, and there'd been quite an upsurge on small-schools initiatives.

"Maybe we were ahead of our time. Today, people really are interested in smaller schools initiatives. That's what we were trying to accomplish by lifting the ban and then coming back to do the hard work of designing the districts that would have to be agreed upon by city council and county commission and both school systems, put in a private act and then go back. And none of what we ever talked about actually had taxing authority. The county would continue to fund, and there would be maintenance of effort. That was the genesis of the original special-districts discussion."

But now? "I have no interest in special districts today. We didn't have charter schools when we started this back in 2000." Parental uncertainty about what schools their children might be assigned to has dissipated. "Today, you've got the reserve annexation agreements in place. You know which city is going to annex where. That and charter schools are major differences that we didn't have back then."

Even more dramatic than his declared opposition to new special school districts is Norris' renewed espousal of a plan similar to the one he advocated as a county commissioner, as well as to one now being touted by the likes of former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and city councilman Shea Flinn, an outspoken supporter of the forthcoming MCS referendum on charter transfer.

That is the idea, put forth by all three, of splitting the county into five sub-districts under a common umbrella with single-source funding and separate administrative control. "Yes, I can see that," Norris says. "Yeah. Unified. Consolidated."

It's a solution that Norris says would involve careful, patient lining up of facets versus the abrupt method represented by the referendum. "They're approaching it like it's a Gordian knot, just whacking it off. I see it more as a Rubik's Cube. It just takes time."

(This column is an abridgement of a lengthy interview with Norris in Nashville during last weekend's gubernatorial-inauguration events. Go here for Part Two of the Norris interview, in which the senator explains the difference between what he argued in 1996 -- that city residents should not vote in county School Board elections -- and what he says today in relation to the MSC charter referendum.)

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