(Nashville, TN) The Tennessee House and Senate have passed a bill lifting the statewide ban on municipal school districts.
The House of Representatives approved HB 1288 by a vote of 70-24.
The Senate passed the companion, SB 1353, by a vote of 25-4.
The bill now heads to Governor Haslam’s desk. If the governor signs the bill into law, suburbs in Shelby County can go to the polls again to determine if they want their own municipal districts and whether they will fund them with additional taxes.
A similar law attempting to allow municipal districts was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge, because it was too specific to Shelby County.
This time, the bill removed language about any transition planning commission, and simply allowed cities meeting certain qualifications to form their own districts.
"We're just elated. We're sorry that it took two to three years to get here," said Keith McDonald, mayor of Bartlett.
The mayors of every Shelby County suburb except Millington traveled to Nashville on Monday to watch the important vote.
Stan Joyner, mayor of Collierville, said, "We knew that the path would not be easy. We knew there would be roadblocks that would come along the way. And we know there will be other roadblocks put in front of us before we're finally successful."
Some lawmakers tried to point out problems with the bill before the vote. Representatives from other parts of Tennessee were concerned about how this would affect their districts.
Rep. Bill Dunn (R - Knoxville) even pointed out that there may be issues down the line if any of the municipalities decide to allow students from outside their city limits.
"In order for this to work, you have to make it more like a special school district, but this bill is not a special school district," Dunn said. "Over time, you're going to see city residents saying wait a second, we're paying the taxes and non-city children are coming to our schools."
Several representatives from Shelby County also asked questions to clarify the bill.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D - Memphis) received confirmation from Rep. Curry Todd (R - Collierville) that the bill does not address school buildings.
Later, on the senate floor, Sen. Jim Kyle (D - Memphis) sparred in a civil debate with the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mark Norris (R - Collierville).
Kyle finally addressed senators from other areas: "This is a mistake: a mistake that you will see in your community one day. That you'll say, why did I get involved in what is essentially a boundary dispute in Shelby County, TN? And you might be asking yourself this: why does Shelby County's municipalities have to operate different from everyone else?"
Bartlett parent Jason Sykes, who works with the organization Better Bartlett Schools, said he feels the bill doesn't make an exception for Shelby County. Because some places in Tennessee have municipal districts from before the ban in 1998, Sykes said this only levels the playing field.
Like many of the suburban mayors who were present, Sykes also expressed wanting excellent education for all children in Shelby County. After all, a law passed now would not prevent them from having to go through at least one school year under the merged system.
Sykes' intent is "not neglecting this unified system that we're part of for a year, but knowing there's another side of this."
The next hurdle may be in the fight over the school buildings.
In talking to Rep. Curry Todd after the vote, Mayor McDonald said, "If we can't work it out at home, then we'll be talking to our good friends here again."