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VOL. 128 | NO. 84 | Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Schools Merger Saga Faces Busy Day

By Bill Dries

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Countywide school board members will discuss and vote Tuesday, April 30, on starting the process of closing 11 more schools, one agenda item during what promises to be a busy day in the schools consolidation saga.

Before the board is a resolution that would begin the process of public hearings in the communities affected by the slate of closings proposed last week by interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson to take effect in the 2014-2015 school year.

The slate of closings includes three high schools – Northside, Westwood and Carver – and affects Southwest Memphis the most.

The board is also expected to take another try Tuesday at approving a private contractor to handle custodial services and will hear a recommendation that they approve a partial outsourcing of transportation services.

At a special meeting Thursday, the school board twice voted down the administration’s recommendation of a $21.9 million contract with GCA for custodial services. The board also voted down a contract with rival bidder for the contract with Aramark.

The $21.9 million GCA contract represents a $12.8 million savings from the current combined spend of the two separate school systems on custodial services. The services are done by the district in-house at Memphis City Schools. They are outsourced in Shelby County Schools to GCA.

Also on the board’s agenda Tuesday is a resolution by school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. asking U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays to “suspend” the start date of the schools merger at least until municipal school districts are formed in the county’s six suburban towns and cities.

“ ... Allowing the County Commission to appoint a near majority of the board of education will undermine the board’s public legitimacy.”

–Tom Cates, Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC

Earlier in the day, Tuesday, all sides in the schools merger lawsuit will be in Memphis federal court for a hearing before Mays on the plan by the Shelby County Commission to appoint six new members to the school board effective Sept. 1.

The board is scheduled to go from 23 members to seven members elected in 2012 under terms of the consent decree governing the ground rules for the consolidation. The same 2011 agreement by all sides also allowed for the County Commission to increase the seven-member board to a 13-member board as early as Sept. 1. The commission approved such an expansion plan earlier this year and submitted it to the court for approval.

Mays, at a hearing earlier this month, agreed such an expansion is permitted. But he also said the agreement made no mention of the commission appointing the new school board members.

On Mays’ instructions, the Shelby County Election Commission submitted a timetable and cost estimate of holding special elections for just the six new positions some time this year.

Attorney John Ryder said the Election Commission’s estimate is such an election would cost less than $500,000 but could be conducted no earlier than Dec. 5 because of preparations necessary for reconciling precinct lines with the new district lines and required periods in advance of an election day for mailing absentee ballots and providing for early voting.

As the week ended, attorneys for the County Commission argued in written motions filed Friday that allowing the commission to appoint six new members is “the most appropriate, timely and effective method to fill the vacancies.”

“All seven members of the school board elected in 2012 will continue to serve a portion of the electorate who elected them,” wrote attorney Lori H. Patterson of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC.

She argued the Dec. 5 estimate for an election makes the case for allowing the commission to appoint six new members who are ready to serve on Sept. 1.

Attorneys for the six suburban towns and cities countered in their filing that allowing the commission to appoint six new school board members would “impede the effectiveness of the board at a crucial time.”

“In addition, allowing the County Commission to appoint a near majority of the board of education will undermine the board’s public legitimacy,” attorney Tom Cates of Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC wrote. “The County Commission should not be allowed to ‘stack the deck’ by appointing six new members of the board of education. Presumably, those appointed by the County Commission will share the viewpoints and serve the interests of the majority on the County Commission and not the constituents in their allotted districts.”

Cates also termed the appointments “an impermissible result that would frustrate the democratic process.”

Valerie Speakman, general counsel for the countywide school board, said she is “unaware of any legal authority permitting the county to appoint school board members under the current circumstances.”

“It is not apparent that an injustice will be done if school board members are elected rather than being appointed,” she added in the school board’s filing.

Neither the state of Tennessee nor the city of Memphis took a position on the expansion of the school board or the appointment of the additional school board members.

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