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Schools bill shows disregard for local governments

  • Written by Reginald Tate
The legislation that passed the state Senate this week will change the dynamics of the Memphis schools debate, perhaps irrevocably.
 Sen. Reginald Tate

The legislation that passed the state Senate this week will change the dynamics of the Memphis schools debate, perhaps irrevocably.

As the bill currently reads, if voters support the charter surrender in the March 8 referendum, a 21-member commission would be set up to develop a transition plan over the next two and a half years. That commission would be composed of the following:

• Three ex-officio members: the Chairman of the Shelby County School System (currently David Pickler), the Mayor of Shelby County (Mark Luttrell), and the President of the Memphis City School Commission (Freda Williams).

• Those three members will then each appoint five “competent citizens,” as defined by the legislation.

• The Governor (Bill Haslam), Speaker of the House (Beth Harwell) and Speaker of the Senate (Ron Ramsey) will also jointly appoint 3 members.

The composition of this board will be heavily weighted toward suburban interests, with as many as 15 members. City interests likely will be represented only through the MCS Commission President and her selections.

The creation of this commission, in effect, bypasses the intent of the referendum and charter surrender. It makes possible the creation of special school districts in Shelby County in 2013 – the very issue that touched off this debate in the first place. Now, it is likely that even if voters go to the polls March 8 and agree to the MCS charter surrender, the vote will have no impact in two years. Special school districts will be created throughout Shelby County, the lines of our school districts will be frozen, and long-term funding for Memphis schools will be damaged to the point that the city could be forced to raise property taxes to make up for funds committed to special school districts.

The actions of the Senate indicate an increased willingness to steer local governments, regardless of the will of their constituents. In the House, a representative outside of Davidson County has filed legislation that directly conflicts with a non-discrimination bill in the Nashville Metro Council. Other legislation regarding issues such as traffic cameras will have major impacts on local revenues and law enforcement.

If Washington were issuing the same sort of orders to Tennessee, many of these same lawmakers would be decrying these actions as government meddling. Instead, our state’s largest county will be forced to do the bidding of lawmakers at the state Capitol, while the voice of voters is silenced. Such a move does not bode well for the independence of our local governments. I am hopeful that legislation like this one is an isolated incident – and not a signal of what Tennesseans can expect from the legislature this session.

(Senator Reginald Tate represents portions of Memphis and Shelby County. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (615) 741-2509 or 320 War Memorial Building, Nashville, TN 37243-0033.)

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