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VOL. 127 | NO. 184 | Thursday, September 20, 2012

Schools Case Continues in Federal Court

By Bill Dries

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When U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays resumes his hearing on municipal school districts, Thursday, Sept. 20, he will already have a desk full of reports, documents and depositions to consider.

WHALUM

And most of the information has nothing to do with public education in Shelby County. The schools-related material has to do with other school systems to which the state laws setting the rules for establishing municipal school districts might apply.

Attorneys for the Shelby County Commission claim the state laws violate the Tennessee Constitution’s standards for general laws because they could only reasonably apply to Shelby County.

Attorneys for Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities claim the laws could apply to Gibson County and the Milan special school district in that county even though Gibson County has no county school system. They also claim it could apply to Carroll County as well.

Making the arguments are attorneys and legal teams with two of the city’s best-known law firms. Burch, Porter and Johnson PLLC is representing the suburban towns and cities. Baker Donelson Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz PC is representing the County Commission.

Each team has delved into the fine print of the law, the school system charters, transcripts of the legislative sessions in 2011 and 2012 where the laws were passed and then amended, as well as other court cases and legal opinions they believe are related.

The result is a set of filings, testimony and arguments that are much more complex than the first part of the case in 2011.

In that first part, Mays ruled on the validity of the other part of the same state laws that allowed for the consolidation of Shelby County’s two public school systems. He then mediated a settlement by all parties in the case on the remaining details. The settlement included an agreement by all sides that they would not appeal his ruling on that part of the case.

At the time, Mays held that the issue of municipal schools was not ripe. Once the ballot referendums on forming such school districts went on the ballots in the suburbs earlier this year, the County Commission filed a third-party claim on the issue. And Mays agreed the issue had become ripe for a decision.

Mays is expected to make his decision in writing some time after Thursday’s court session but before the Nov. 6 municipal school board elections in each of the six suburban towns and cities that are the follow-up to the passage of the ballot questions in August.

As that happens, the schools merger process is showing new signs of life.

Countywide school board members should begin voting up or down the first recommendations of the schools consolidation planning commission at their Thursday, Sept. 27, meeting.

The recommendations are the blueprint for how the merged school system will operate leading up to and past the merger start date of August 2013.

The board approved Tuesday, Sept. 18, a resolution sponsored by board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. to “begin the process of reviewing, approving or rejecting the (planning commission’s) merger plan … with the expert advice of the transition steering committee.”

The steering committee is a group of six top administrators from both of Shelby County’s public school systems who have been reviewing the set of 172 recommendations sent to the school board by the planning commission at the beginning of August.

“I just think it’s our first official barometer to see where this board stands,” Whalum said. “Even if staff only recommends that we deal with one or two, we start. I just think it’s very important to start. We may not get very much done at all. But I just think it’s important to communicate that.”

The steering committee is expected to have many of its recommendations including those on the planning commission recommendations to close up to 20 schools and outsource custodial and transportation services by the board’s October business meeting.

Those three recommendations are expected to be the most discussed of the planning commission recommendations. They are also the most critical to a funding gap between revenues and expenses for the merged school system that the planning commission puts at $57 million if the school board includes those three recommendations.

If the board doesn’t, the gap goes higher, according to planning commissioners. But the steering committee is expected to differ with the planning commission’s estimate of savings from the three measures.

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