NASHVILLE — With legislation allowing new Tennessee municipal school districts jumping its first House committee hurdle Wednesday, suburban mayors said they’d like to see a bill passed that allows referendums and other movement toward new school districts this year.
The bill repealing a 14-year-old ban on new municipal school districts in Tennessee won approval in the House Education Subcommittee on Wednesday, and now goes to the full committee next week.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, agreed to requests by Reps. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, and Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, for a more complete hearing on the bill’s ramifications, including testimony from Memphis and Shelby County officials.
The Senate version is ready for a Senate floor vote, possibly next week.
If ultimately approved, House Bill 3234 would allow Shelby County’s suburban cities to proceed with their plans for new school districts.
Public referendums on whether to proceed with new districts that were planned by Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown and Lakeland for May 10 were called off last week after a state attorney general’s opinion said referendums and other actions to establish municipal schools cannot occur until the Memphis and Shelby County school systems are merged next summer.
As it’s written, the new bill would repeal the ban effective Jan. 1, so it’s unlikely that the measure would restore referendums for May 10.
Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman and Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald attended Wednesday’s 12-minute subcommittee hearing and said afterward that they’d like to see some measure approved that would allow referendums and other planning toward new municipal districts this year.
HB 3234 “allows us to plan a little earlier,” said Wissman. “All we’re trying to do is get the opportunity where our citizens in the suburbs can vote and the sooner we can get to that, the better off we’ll be. Everybody can get together and plan where we’re going to be.”
McDonald said other legislation might be amended to allow referendums sooner than next year. “We’d certainly like to have the opportunity to let our people vote. Memphis folks got to vote. Our people would like to vote.”
In the brief subcommittee hearing, Democrats complained that the bill represents an ongoing attempt by the state legislature to interfere in a local issue in Shelby County.
“I just want to make it perfectly clear that what we’re doing here is involving ourselves in Shelby County’s business,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.
After the meeting, McDonald told reporters that the interference occurred years ago when state lawmakers prohibited cities from forming new districts. “We believe that the legislators interfered in the ’70s and ’90s and that we’re asking to right a wrong where they took away our authority to have our own schools.”
DeBerry and Dunn said the bill needs a full hearing, with expert testimony about the impacts of lifting the 1998 ban on new municipal districts. DeBerry said Memphis and Shelby County officials, and others, should testify.
Dunn agreed. “If it doesn’t happen at the next level (the full committee), I’m not voting for something that I don’t understand all the ramifications. I think perhaps at the next level we have some experts outside of the political fray in Shelby County to talk about exactly what happens and what kind of lawsuits can occur.
“I know there are a lot of cities in Shelby County. Can they band together to create a school district or does it have to just be one municipality? Can they go outside the border of the city and take in land around it, and then how does that affect students if they leave pockets of students who would still be in the whole county system? There are a lot of questions to this and I really want them answered,” Dunn said.
Contact Nashville Bureau chief Richard Locker at (615) 255-4923.
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