The State of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools. The General Assembly may establish and support such postsecondary educational institutions, including public institutions of higher learning, as it determines. (Article 9 Section 12 of the Tennessee State Constitution)
The importance of education is codified in our state constitution. It’s role in society as the great equalizer is understood across the partisan divide. Despite this, schools are one of the most divisive topics in state and local politics. Schools are used as a wedge to divide people across the range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
Schools are an emotional topic for people, particularly those in the middle and working classes. People living in those economic conditions know first hand, for their children to thrive in their lives, a solid educational foundation is necessary. So when legislators decide to interfere in schools on partisan grounds, these are very people that should not only recoil, but express the profound outrage at such a cowardly move.
Such is the case with a bill proposed by State Sen. Mark Norris. The man who, just a month ago, made overtures to quell the fears of City residents by publicly announcing he would not seek special school district status for Shelby County Schools has decided that rather than allow the Memphis residents, who make up 70% of the population of Shelby County, their right of self-determination, the sanctity of a County school district that was built in large part thanks to the tax revenues of those very same Memphis residents is more important.
His legislative effort is not only reactionary, but a destructive force in a process that should not be, but has become, a partisan shell game of distraction, delay, and disinformation.
TCA §§ 49-1-102 (c) sets forth the following for local administration of schools:
There shall be a local public school system operated in each county or combination of counties. There may be a local public school system operated in a municipality or special school district.
You’ll note that according to this section county schools are required. The word “shall” makes it so. Municipal schools and Special School Districts are also allowed, though not required as expressed by the word “may”. This section of law clearly puts the responsibility of education on the County.
As such, maintenance of the Shelby County School District is required by state law. Memphis City Schools, on the other hand, is an optional entity that may be dissolved by a vote of the citizens of Memphis at any time we deem necessary and for any reason. Dissolving a local district has always, until now, been understood as the prerogative of the local electorate. The bill proposed by Sen. Mark Norris would change that drastically.
Throwing Up Roadblocks
The bill proposed by Sen. Norris would fundamentally change a process that has always been understood as an issue of self-determination by throwing in a roadblock that would only apply to Memphis and Shelby County by amending TCA §§ 49-2-502. Current law states:
The school board, school commissioners, school trustees or other duly constituted administrative officials of any special school district are authorized and empowered to transfer the administration of the schools in the special school district to the county board of education of the county in which the special school district is located. Before a transfer is effectuated, however, a referendum shall first be conducted on the subject, and the school system of the special school district shall not be transferred to the county unless a majority of the voters who cast votes in the referendum vote in favor of the transfer. The referendum shall be held by the county election commission when requested by the school board of the special school district, and the expenses of the election shall be paid from the funds of the special school district.
This clearly gives special school districts the right of self-determination, a right that any optional entity should have at their disposal.
Sen. Norris’ amendment to this section would remove that self-determination from the duly elected legislative body of certain districts and put it in the hands of County and City executives. The bill reads:
Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) or any other law to the contrary, if the proposed transfer of the administration of the schools in the special school district would increase student enrollment within the county education agency by one hundred percent (100%) or more, then the proposed transfer shall be effectuated in the manner set forth in §§ 49-2-1201 through 49-2-1208.
In essence, this proposed bill would disempower large municipal or special school districts’ generally understood right of self-determination by giving those who were never elected to represent the people regarding educational affairs, new powers to determine the future of education.
Rocket Propelled Legislative Assault
As the Commercial Appeal reports this morning, this bill has been fast tracked by Sen. Norris, who serves as the Republican leader in the State Senate, and newly minted Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell. A vote is expected as soon as Saturday and the bill would become effective as soon as it is passed and signed. There has been no indication from incoming Governor Haslam as to whether or not he intends to sign the bill.
Because of the results of the November elections, Republicans hold large majorities in both the state House and Senate. There is no way to know for sure if state legislators are willing to pass this legislation this quickly, but considering that it really only impacts Shelby County, and is supported by suburban Shelby County Republicans, it is likely that it will glide right through the legislative process.
This represents dire consequences for Shelby County in the next two years. If a minority of our delegation is allowed to determine, at the state level, what legislation will apply to our county as a result of being in a majority statewide, there are a great number of things that could be passed through the legislature that serve only the interests of the few over the many. The Democratic majorities of the past sought to hem these legislative initiatives in committees stacked with Shelby County or Democratic legislators. That will not be the case going forward. Today the fight is about schools, tomorrow, who knows?
Assuming this bill passes both the House and Senate on Saturday and is signed into law, there will have to be a lawsuit. Because MCS started the process before the passage of the law, despite attempts by the Shelby County Election Commission and State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins to delay the vote, a Judge will likely have to decide whether or not this change of the rules in the middle of the game applies to this scenario.
In pursuing this tactic, Norris and company have effectively exponentially increased the cost of a process that has been codified for years to the citizens of Shelby County. In addition, its reasonable to expect that additional legislative tactics intended to delay the inevitable will be employed that will also require judicial intervention.
The question must be asked, “Why does Mark Norris want to waste taxpayer dollars on frivolous legislation that necessitates judicial intervention?” Only Norris can answer that question, but this is beginning to look more and more like a war against Memphis and by extension Memphians. In waging this war Norris has staked his claim with those who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy and self-interested, and proven the points laid out by Memphis City School Board members Martavius Jones, Tomeka Hart and Represenataive GA Hardaway last month: that inaction is not an option and trust in the goodwill of others is folly.
It is an unfortunate commentary on our times, but it is the reality we face. By giving residents outside of Memphis effective veto power, as City Councilman Shea Flinn noted, Memphis is losing its ability to determine it’s future.
What reason do we have to believe they will stop with the schools? From the looks of things, they’ll stop at nothing to hinder Memphis’ ability to determine it’s future, and in doing so, relegate us to second class citizen status.
This cannot stand.