The Shelby County school board has filed a federal lawsuit against the Memphis City Schools board, the Memphis City Council, Memphis city government and parts of the state and federal governments.
The lawsuit filed late Friday in Memphis federal court seeks a declaratory judgment and is aimed at the council’s Thursday vote to ratify the surrender of the MCS charter as well as the MCS board’s original Dec. 20 decision on the matter.
The lawsuit claims “reckless conduct” by the MCS board in surrendering its charter under a section of state law that provided for no transition period. A transition period of two and a half years was added in the legislation signed into law Friday by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
“The Memphis City Schools and the Memphis City Council have failed and refused to follow any such procedures and have created, thereby, a chaotic and dangerous vacuum by ending the legal foundation for the operation of the public schools of the city of Memphis,” the lawsuit reads. “It is legally and factually impossible for the Shelby County schools to immediately begin to operate the city of Memphis public school system without the employment of a thoughtful plan of transition which will accomplish, among other tasks, the complete and thoughtful transfer to the Shelby County Schools of the entire right, title and interest held by the Memphis city board of education … and insuring the availability of adequate funding in the Shelby County School’s budget to fund the transfer.”
The lawsuit seeks an expedited hearing and a declaratory judgment that either lays out when a transfer to consolidated status would happen or declares the MCS board’s Dec. 20 charter surrender resolution “null and void … thereby relieving the Shelby County Schools of any immediate responsibility for the affairs of the City of Memphis public school system.”
The legislation that became law Friday with Haslam’s signature lengthens the transition period for schools consolidation to two and half years and opens the door to special school district status or municipal school district status for suburban leaders who have sought either status to block consolidation.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. told reporters Friday afternoon he was “disappointed” but that he was not surprised at Haslam’s decision.
“I will never swallow this,” Wharton said as he accused opponents of school consolidation of changing law and thus effectively changing the terms of the March 8 citywide referendum after the election has already been scheduled.
Wharton said his administration is also considering legal action in federal court. Wharton speculated that a city lawsuit would probably challenge the legislation as violating Constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection.
Those are among the same grounds cited in the Shelby County schools lawsuit. That lawsuit applies those alleged constitutional violations to the students of both school systems.
The county schools lawsuit is the third filed in the continuing political saga that began around Thanksgiving. It is the first by a government entity directly involved in the controversy.
The group Citizens for Better Education took the Shelby County Election Commission to court in January seeking an order to set an election date for the city referendum. The group and the election commission reached a settlement that was later put in the form of a court order setting the election for March 8 and specifying it would be a citywide election.
Attorney Richard Fields filed a motion Wednesday seeking to reopen the 50 year old MCS desegregation court case to get a restraining order or preliminary injunction blocking any state legislation with a “racial impact” on the schools consolidation process.
The motion was rejected by U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays who said Fields could refile once the March 8 referendum was decided.