UPDATE: On Friday afternoon Gov. Haslam signed the legislation addressing the potential merger, saying “The bill addresses two of my biggest concerns. It allows an orderly planning process for transition, while leaving the local vote in place for March 8.”
Gov. Bill Haslam has yet to say publicly whether he plans to sign a bill which aims to slow the process of consolidating the two school districts in Shelby County, though legislative leaders expressed confidence the measure would become law.
The bill, SB25, sets down rules and a planning process for merging Memphis City Schools, the state’s largest school district, with Shelby County Schools. It also postpones consolidation until the 2013-14 school year if Memphis voters approve the merger next month. The bill passed the House Thursday and the Senate earlier this week, with both votes along party lines.
Late Thursday afternoon the Memphis City Council voted to allow the Memphis City Schools Board of Education to surrender its charter. The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that city council members indicated they still want the March 8 referendum to go ahead as scheduled and could rescind Thursday’s decision if the referendum asking voters whether to transfer administrative control of city schools to Shelby County fails.
Speaking before the Tennessee Press Association immediately following the House vote — and prior to the Memphis City Council vote — Gov. Bill Haslam said it was “premature” for him to say whether he planned to sign it.
“We’ll go back and talk about it like we will everything else,” he told reporters from around the state gathered at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Nashville.
The Republican-sponsored measure zipped through the bulk of the legislative process in eight days.
Memphis Democrats in the Senate tried to convince Republicans to slow down passage of the bill, saying an issue of such magnitude should take more than a week to consider. Democrats pulled out all the stops in the House Thursday in a last-ditch attempt to derail the bill, filing 14 amendments to the legislation, all rejected by the House GOP majority.
Democrats charged Republicans with hypocrisy, saying GOP lawmakers were already guilty of betraying the limited-government rhetoric that’d helped them win so convincingly across the state in November.
“My friends across the aisle who are supposed to be the champions of smaller government, who are the champions of not having Big Brother interfere on smaller governments, stood up in lockstep and voted to act like Washington,” Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman from Old Hickory, said in a press conference immediately following the vote.
Haslam could veto the bill or, if he takes no action by Feb. 21, it would become law without his signature.
Both Republican and Democratic leaders say they have not talked with the governor about his views on the bill, but both expect he’ll OK it, if tacitly.
“We’re not sure exactly if he’s going to sign the legislation or if he’s just going to sit on it and then it automatically becomes the law,” Rep. Larry Miller, the ranking House Democrat of the Shelby County delegation, told reporters in a press conference shortly after the House vote.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said he’s hopeful the governor will sign the legislation quickly so the state has time to prepare for the March 8 referendum.
Last week, Haslam and the state’s acting education commissioner asked Memphis and Shelby County school districts to submit a transition plan by Feb. 15. Having a plan was imperative to the success of any merger, Haslam said at the time, but he stopped short of weighing in on whether the school systems should merge or comment on the merits of Norris’ bill.
Miller said he hopes Haslam will find a way to keep Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton more involved in the process. The City of Memphis does not have a seat on the 21-person transition board outlined in the bill.
Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, and House Speaker Beth Harwell would each appoint a member. Seats would go to the county mayor and the chairmen of the county and city school boards, and those three officials would each pick five other members.
Haslam, who has said he’s been in constant contact with Wharton throughout the past few weeks, said he wants to see “a little bit more city representation” on the committee.
Haslam added, though, that discussions about schools in Memphis and Shelby County need to evolve beyond partisan rancor and regional political feuding in order to address the city’s bleak public educational picture.
“I think we’re having the wrong conversation,” Haslam said. “At the end of the day, the conversation’s all about the legal issues around it instead of how are we going to help educate all 150,000 of those children, and I mean all 150,000.”
The Memphis City Schools board voted 5-4 in December to dissolve the district and hand over authority for educating its 103,000 students to the smaller Shelby County Schools. The board’s decision heightened longstanding area racial tensions and sparked heated political debate over school finances, quality of education and the proper role of state government in the affairs of counties and local communities.
A slim majority of voters favor merging the systems, a recent poll conducted for the Memphis Commercial Appeal showed.