House passes Memphis schools' merger bill - Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

House passes Memphis schools' merger bill

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NASHVILLE, TN -

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Opponents of a proposal that would slow down any merger between Memphis schools and the Shelby County system say it boils down to an issue of race.

The proposal sponsored by Republican Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville was approved 64-31 along party lines on Thursday and is headed to the governor for his consideration. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week.

The Memphis City School Board voted last year to let city voters decide in a March 8 special election whether the troubled city schools should merge with the county's. A consolidated school system would have 150,000 students, with the county in charge.

Under the legislation, if the merger is approved, the transfer couldn't take place for three years and a transitional plan would have to be drawn up within that time. The original bill called for a one-year wait.

There are roughly 47,000 students currently in the county system, and about 103,000 in Memphis schools. Todd said not having a transitional team for such an undertaking "could cause major chaos."

"I'm standing here today trying to put a good plan in place for both of these systems," Todd said before the vote.

However, critics of the legislation say it's a veiled attempt by Shelby County to prevent the merger by dragging it out over three years.

"The people of Shelby County don't want those poor black kids going to school with them," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville. "At its best it's hypocrisy, at its worse it borders on racism."

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told members of the Tennessee Press Association at a legislative planning session sponsored by The Associated Press on Thursday that the debate over Memphis schools is a "very volatile situation," but said he can't understand why it's been cast as a racial issue.

"I don't personally get that, that's not what we're talking about here," the Blountville Republican said. "It just blows me away that it's been taken in that direction."

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis scoffed at Ramsey's claim that race was not a factor in delaying a school merger.

"There is something about Memphis and Shelby County that causes the (Republican) leadership to decide that is something they must do, and I would say quite frankly that race is part of it," he said.

"If this was a dispute between the Kingsport and Bristol cities over schools, would we be passing a law taking the decision away from them?" he said.
 
Others criticized the lack of diversity on the proposed transitional commission, which doesn't include the Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, a Democrat, but does include the county mayor, who is a Republican.

The GOP, which controls both chambers and the governorship, voted against nearly 20 amendments that attempted to diversify the commission.

"This is wrong," said Democratic Rep. Lois DeBerry of Memphis, whose amendment would include Wharton on the panel. "Regardless of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, ask yourself if this is fair."

If the merger occurs, Todd said that under law it wouldn't be a municipal run school district, "which is why the mayor is not included in the transitional team."

The city board's move has met resistance from county school officials, who want a countywide vote. Suburban state lawmakers have tried for several years to get approval of a special school district for Shelby County Schools, which would freeze the district's current boundaries in the suburbs around Memphis and prevent a merger.

Proponents of the merger say they want to ensure long-term funding for Memphis City Schools in case Shelby County Schools ever got such a status.

The measure would lift a ban on creating special school districts at the beginning of the third year. Democrats have said that provision is among the main reasons for the legislation.

"This panel they're putting together, I'm not sure what they're going to end up doing," Turner said.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam didn't immediately respond to an e-mail about the governor's intentions.

However, opponents of the measure say they're sure the newly elected governor doesn't want to deal with such a controversial issue just in office, especially when they believe it should be handled locally and not by the state.

Democratic Rep. Larry Miller of Memphis said there have also been threats of lawsuits over the proposed merger which could involve the state.

"Do you want to go to court?" Miller asked. "This is a local issue."

Read HB0051/SB0025 at: http://www.legislature.state.tn.us/

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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