Among celebration parties in Bartlett, Germantown and elsewhere, suburban school supporters sipped soft drinks and toasted their success Tuesday night after voters again approved the formation of municipal school districts, reports The Commercial Appeal. Back at the polls because a federal judge threw out last year’s vote approving the districts, voters turned out in smaller numbers in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington but approved the districts by an overwhelming margin.
Approval numbers ranged from a high of 94 percent in Collierville to a low of almost 74 percent in Millington. About 20 percent of the 143,000 registered voters cast ballots with about half voting early.
“It’s higher than a typical special election,” said election administrator Richard Holden.
If the districts ultimately pass legal muster, Bartlett would be the largest suburban school district with 9,000-plus students in a dozen schools. Lakeland would be the smallest with roughly 2,500-plus students in one elementary school.
At Garibaldi’s Pizza in Germantown, supporters in YES shirts supporters smiled as they took pictures, cheered and applauded as precinct totals came in.
There’s a long tradition of urban versus rural clashes in the Tennessee General Assembly, observes Frank Cagle, and these days it’s the urban folks who are losing power. The Republican takeover has brought a lot of changes to state government, but none more so than the shift of political power from the cities to more rural areas. There are places like suburban Williamson County (Franklin) where legislators are dictating to Nashville metro government, despite Davidson County being much more heavily populated. Suburbs like Germantown over in Shelby County have more political clout than Memphis, the largest city in the state.
In past decades, Knox County’s City County Building might have been predominately Republican, but local officeholders knew that if they really needed a bill they had to call on Democratic House members Joe Armstrong or Harry Tindell. Both were powerful committee chairs and had the ear of the leadership. That’s not the case anymore. Tindell retired and has been replaced by first-term member Gloria Johnson. Armstrong is still respected by his colleagues and retains his institutional knowledge. He’s been in the House since 1988. But he doesn’t have the power he once had as part of the House leadership.
Current conditions are unlike the old days in that districts are not unfairly drawn. It is a political problem that is unlikely to be resolved unless major cities elect more Republicans or Democrats start to win in the suburbs or win back traditionally Democratic rural counties in West and Middle Tennessee.
That could take a generation
State legislators representing Shelby County suburban cities say they may file a bill this week to repeal Tennessee’s 15-year-old prohibition on new municipal school systems statewide, according to the Commercial Appeal.
(Note: The bill filing deadline for the 2013 session is Thursday.) The state legislature last year lifted the ban only in Shelby County, but a federal judge in Memphis ruled a Shelby-only bill violated the Tennessee Constitution.
That municipal school approach is favored by suburban leaders over a plan for converting schools in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington into charter schools under the municipalities’ control. The suburban mayors had focused on charter schools in their negotiations with the County Commission and City Council but ended the talks Friday after declaring an impasse primarily over how much control the suburbs would have. A charter school approach could remain on the legislative table as a backup plan.
If the legislature legalized the creation of new municipal school systems across the state, it could negate the key provision that U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays overturned Nov. 27 — but other issues, including Equal Protection considerations over the possibility of resegregation of schools in Shelby County, are before the judge for review.
Shelby’s suburban state legislators struggled through the 2012 legislative session, especially in the House of Representatives, to win approval of the bill that allowed the suburban cities to hold referendums on creating new municipal districts and elections for school board members after voters approved the new districts. House leaders resisted lifting the ban statewide and eventually limited it to Shelby County.
But with Mays’ ruling forcing them to regroup, suburban mayors and legislators are more confident they can win approval of a statewide repeal because of several reasons:
Richard Montgomery, the Sevierville Republican who chaired the House Education Committee in 2011-12, lost re-election to a GOP primary challenger last August. Montgomery had favored limiting last year’s bill to Shelby County.
The new chairman, Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, participated in a Nashville meeting Tuesday with all of Shelby County’s suburban legislators, the mayors or city managers of the six municipalities, legislative staff attorneys, attorneys for the suburbs and others to lay the groundwork for another legislative push. Brooks could not be reached this weekend but is likely more willing to consider a statewide repeal.
There has been so much turnover in the legislature that few members know why their predecessors in 1998 banned new municipal districts and have no institutional commitment to keeping the ban in place. The 1998 move was part of a comprehensive reform of Tennessee law governing municipal annexations, land-use and urban-growth planning, and when and how new towns can be established.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday decided to allow residents of six Memphis suburbs to vote on forming city school districts, but he left open the option of voiding the election later.
Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington are seeking to form their own public school systems and avoid becoming part of a combined Memphis-Shelby County system upon a scheduled 2013 merger. The six municipalities, which have a combined population of about 171,000, are currently part of the Shelby County Schools system but want to break away.
A state law passed this year allowed the municipalities to schedule the vote to form their own school systems. But the Shelby County Commission sued to stop the vote, arguing that the state law violates the Tennessee constitution.
U. S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled after a day-long hearing Thursday that the referendums can continue and he will decide the law’s constitutionality later. Early voting for the Aug. 2 election starts Friday, and Mays noted some absentee ballots have been cast.