Haslam signs bill that will delay school system consolidation - Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Haslam signs bill that will delay school system consolidation

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Gov. Bill Haslam Gov. Bill Haslam

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Friday signed into law a bill that delays an attempt by the Memphis city school system to disband and turn education over to the Shelby County system now serving only the suburbs.

The governor acted on a bill that was sponsored by two Republican lawmakers from those suburbs and fast-tracked through the GOP-controlled Legislature this week. The measure didn't receive a single Democratic vote, and drew the ire of Memphis-area Democrats.

The Memphis City School Board voted in December to let city voters decide in a March 8 special election whether their system - plagued by funding problems and low scores on mandatory tests - should merge with the system in Shelby County. A consolidated school system would have 150,000 students, with the county in charge.

The new law says there must be a transition plan for the transfer and the merger couldn't take place for three years.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Memphis Democrats have criticized the bill, saying the charter surrender is a local issue and that Republicans were changing the rules in the middle of the process. The bill also has stirred up long-running racial tension between majority black Memphis and its predominantly white suburbs.

Haslam said he signed the bill because it allows for an orderly planning process for transition, should voters decide to surrender the charter.

"I think the situation, if we will handle it in a thoughtful manner, can be an opportunity for all of us to have a discussion about how we keep moving forward with public education in Memphis and Shelby County," Haslam said in a statement.

Memphis officials on Friday delivered to Secretary of State Tre Hargett's office documents seeking to immediately surrender the city's schools charter. The Memphis City Council's vote on Thursday to accept the decision to surrender the charter dissolved the city school board.

The charter surrender has met resistance from county school officials, who wanted 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.

Supporters say they want to ensure long-term funding for Memphis City Schools in case Shelby County Schools ever got such a status.
County school board chairman David Pickler has warned that jobs could be cut and schools could be closed to conserve resources if a consolidation takes place.

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.

The proposed transitional commission doesn't include Wharton, a Democrat, but does include county Mayor Mark Luttrell, who is a Republican.

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

Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig contributed to this report from Nashville.

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

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