Attorneys on all sides of the federal court case over municipal school districts are waiting for a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on issues involving the Tennessee Constitution.
And they are filing the motions and pleadings that will shape the upcoming January hearing Mays will conduct on the U.S. Constitutional issues in the case.
As both parts of the legal claim with the same common focus – municipal school districts – became active this week, the new filings on the most volatile of the legal claims roiled already choppy political waters.
The Shelby County Commission claims, through its attorneys, that that the formation of the municipal school districts in the six suburban towns and cities amounts to an illegal racial “resegregation” of public education in Shelby County. And that would violate the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.
Mays has said that part of the case is the equivalent of a schools desegregation lawsuit in its complexity and legal issues.
In a filing Friday, Oct. 5, the commission’s attorneys raised the possibility that if the court agrees with it on the federal questions, the commission would be funding unconstitutional school systems and could be sued, in effect, after winning the legal argument.
Some on the commission, notably commissioner Terry Roland, took it to be an attempt to stop funding of the municipal school districts now.
County Commission chairman Mike Ritz said it is not – at least not yet.
“What we are asking for is direction from the court as to whether or not we should fund municipal schools,” Ritz said. “If we fund municipal schools and they are later found to be segregated, we are liable. … So we do not want to make a mistake and fund a segregated school system. We’re asking the court to decide if the municipal school districts are segregated. We can’t refuse funding.”
Ritz says the question of funding still has some time to be resolved by a ruling or rulings from Mays on the larger issues.
Mays has heard and had filed all of the proof from all of the sides in the challenge on the municipal school districts on grounds the state laws permitting them violate the Tennessee Constitution. If Mays throws out the state laws from 2011 or 2012 that set the ground rules for forming such school districts, the federal constitutional claims are a moot point.
If Mays upholds the laws, Ritz says there is still time to decide the federal issues before the start of the 2013-2014 school year in August, which is when suburban leaders want to open their schools – as the two public school systems in Shelby County merge.
“There’s a chance he will (rule),” Ritz said. “January starts that trial. But it would be close.”
If it is too close, Ritz said the motion’s reference to funding might then become a request for at least a temporary court order to bar county funding of municipal school districts pending a ruling on the larger issues.
“We’re going to have to ask for some guidance,” Ritz said of that eventuality.
Meanwhile, the commission emptied its contingency fund of the remaining $171,490 to pay legal fees from the ongoing federal court case. And the commission voted to replenish the contingency fund for legal fees with another $800,000 from the county government’s estimated fund balance. The commission also voted to take up a possible audit of the legal bills in its audit committee.
The transfer and move to audit committee drew vocal debate on a body in which a majority support the continued litigation, but a vocal minority have said they believe the challenge of municipal school districts is going too far.
They argue the volatile racial claim will leave lasting scars outside court no matter how the case is decided by Mays.
“I think we are throwing our money away,” said commissioner Steve Basar. “I think we need to move on.”