Just as the Flyer was going to press, we received news of a state attorney general's opinion that potentially supercedes much of the current fuss over complications having to do with the merger of city and county school systems and with the efforts of five suburban municipalities to begin the process of establishing their own independent school systems.
The suburban cities currently engaged in this process are Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, and Arlington. The administrations of these cities have made haste to schedule referenda on May 10th in order to obtain the sanction of their residents to form independent municipal school districts. In so doing — and basing their actions on sections of the Norris-Todd bill of 2011 (which became Public Chapter One), the governing instrument of the merger — the suburban administrations may have become, to a very real extent, hoist by their own petard.
Basing his opinion on mandatory conditions set forth in no uncertain terms in Norris-Todd, Attorney General Robert Cooper finds 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 10th 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 could 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 to answer 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.