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City attorney discusses school issue ‘time line’

Flag City LogoBy Bill Short

Millington’s attorney discussed a “time line” for elections last week after the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation allowing the creation of municipal school districts in the state.
On April 15, the Tennessee Senate and House of Representatives each passed a bill that repeals the 1998 statewide ban on such districts. The next day, both chambers passed a bill that allows an unlimited number of districts in any county that meets Tennessee Department of Education regulations.
Shortly after the conclusion of an April 16 special called meeting of the Millington Board of Mayor and Aldermen, City Attorney Charles Perkins recalled that the state legislature enacted Public Chapter 905 in 2012. That bill allowed the six suburban municipalities in Shelby County to conduct referenda last August on whether their residents desired to create their own municipal school districts.
After all the municipalities “overwhelmingly” approved the referenda, Perkins said, they conducted school board elections on Nov. 6, 2012. But he noted that a lawsuit had previously been filed in U.S. District Court challenging the constitutionality of Public Chapter 905.
On Nov. 27, 2012, U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled that the law violated Article XI, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution. That section prohibits legislation that is local in effect to one particular county.
Consequently, Mays ruled that all actions taken under the authority of Public Chapter 905 were void, including the referenda to authorize municipal schools and the school board elections. He also ruled that municipal schools cannot be created before the scheduled merger of Memphis City and Shelby County schools this August.
Perkins acknowledged that he does not know when Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will sign the new legislation or what legal challenges it may face in the future.
But if it is signed “expeditiously,” he said the board could schedule its first reading of an ordinance authorizing a new municipal schools referendum at its May 6 meeting. It could “probably” have the second reading a week later and the third the week after that.
Perkins said the referendum could be scheduled in July. If it is approved by a majority of Millington residents, the board will have to wait for the Shelby County Election Commission to certify the results.
“That’s something that was not done in some of the towns last time,” he recalled. “That was challenged in the federal lawsuit, and we recommend that we wait until the election is certified.”
Perkins said that, in August, the board will have to pass three readings of an ordinance that schedules a new school board election, which he believes could be conducted on or around Nov. 7.
The city attorney noted that he has already asked Richard Holden, Shelby County’s administrator of elections, about the “time line scenario.”
“One of the complications with both of these elections is that there’s an absentee component,” he acknowledged. “You have to give the election commission enough time so that, 45 days before an election, it can send out absentee ballots to military or other folks who might qualify as absentee citizens who are residing in another part of the world or the state.”
In response to a question by Alderman Mike Caruthers, Perkins said the new legislation does not address whether the municipalities will be required to purchase the school buildings from the county.
Although that could have been fitted under “caption bills” that were filed, he said that has not occurred. And because the legislature is probably in the last week of this year’s session, he believes that is a “next-year bill.”
“So, that issue is up in the air,” he acknowledged, “although many people think the law is that the buildings follow the children. That’s been the law in Tennessee for 100 years.”
In response to a question by Alderman Bethany Huffman, Perkins said he believes the board can pay for the special elections with revenue generated from the half-cent sales tax increase.
Mayor Terry Jones said the city will try to schedule its elections on the same days that the other municipalities do.
Because the referendum last August did not pass by an “overwhelming” majority in Millington, Caruthers said it will be “really critical” for the board to obtain “accurate cost data” for the elections.
“It’s going to be really close for Millington,” he contended. “So, if we want this to happen, we’re all going to have to get on board with it.”
Louise Kennon was one of the seven unopposed candidates in last November’s election for what would have been the Millington Municipal School Board. She said the city’s residents do not understand how important the schools are.
“We’re at the bottom of the barrel in the county, because we never do things right the first time,” she said. “Without a school system, we can kiss everything goodbye.”
Citing the number of houses currently for sale in the city, Kennon said those residents told her they are moving to Tipton County because of the schools.
Caruthers recalled that the board “fought hard” to obtain the funding to renovate Millington Central High School. After Phase One was completed, he said the county was “committed” to do “everything else.”
“My concern is that, under the Shelby County School System, we were a small fish in a big pond,” he noted. “And now, we’re a minnow in the ocean under the unified school system.”
Alderman Thomas McGhee said the board must do the “hard work” of gathering the data that address the cost of creating a municipal school district.
Noting that she personally gathered some “figures,” Kennon said the city can afford to create such a district, because it has the funding. But McGhee said if she communicated that to the residents, they did not hear it, because they did not vote “overwhelmingly” for the referendum.
While acknowledging that the communication must be better this time, Kennon said the city does not need any “negatives,” only “positives.” She said some Millington residents do not know that the referenda for municipal schools and a half-cent sales tax increase were approved and that a school board was elected.
“There was so much negative in the political arena that they missed the positive,” she noted, “and I don’t want to see that happen this time. I will fight anybody who starts it, because we had some very bad publicity last time.”
Although she understands that this is a “very passionate issue,” Huffman said she also expects the residents to conduct themselves in a “very professional manner” as the board moves forward with it.
“Some of the negativity actually came from people being very passionate about an issue and wanting to be heard, as opposed to trying to listen and obtain the information to make an educated decision,” she concluded. “I told them that we ask people to respect the children of Millington, who we are trying to benefit here.”

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April 2013
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