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VOL. 128 | NO. 38 | Monday, February 25, 2013

Ending of Schools Talks Still Rankles Both Sides

By Bill Dries

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When all sides in the school merger court case gather Monday, Feb. 25, before federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays, they will have lots of time to talk over municipal school districts.

The status conference is the only item on Mays’ calendar Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

The conference comes after all sides involved in trying to work out a settlement of the municipal schools district part of the lawsuit ended their private discussions last month.

Mays was not involved in the mediation effort as he had been in the first part of the case, which dealt with the terms of the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

Mays tried unsuccessfully to mediate another settlement among all sides just before he ruled in November that one of three state laws governing how municipal school districts are formed violated the Tennessee Constitution.

At issue now are the two other state laws on municipal school districts.

Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz indicated last month that he would instruct the commission’s legal counsel in the case to ask Mays to rule on the remaining state laws.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said suburban leaders weren’t sure exactly how they would word their notice to the court that the mediation efforts had failed. They could simply tell Mays the talks are over without specifically asking him to rule.

No notice of the end of talks from any of the sides has turned up in the electronic case file for the matter.

Ritz and McDonald confirmed in February that the private talks in which Mays played no part had ended three months or so after they began.

And toward the end, Ritz said days would go by without any messages between the two sides, who by then were talking through their attorneys.

Ritz and Commissioners Steve Mulroy and Walter Bailey were directly involved in the private talks with the suburban leaders and said just before that the two sides appeared close to an agreement.

The talks were aimed at an agreement for the establishment of a set of charter school districts in each of the six suburban towns and cities, according to Ritz.

“All of the major points were agreed to. It was only a few minor points about how long the agreement would stay in effect and what would happen to buildings if they were to revert to county control – not major points,” Mulroy said last week. “Points that we could have easily worked out if they had stayed at the negotiating table. But they left.”

Ritz, from the outset, put a plan on the table in which each suburban town and city would have a 10-year agreement with the county in addition to whatever agreement was negotiated with the countywide school board.

McDonald, however, said last month he was frustrated by having to negotiate with the commission.

“They wanted to talk about things that we should be negotiating with the school board about and not with the county commission,” he said, while still abiding by the confidentiality agreement and not talking about specific terms. “They wanted to bind us to some situations before we even had a chance to negotiate with the school system about either a charter school program or a municipal school district and how buildings would be done.”

The countywide school board is not a party in the lawsuit and thus was not involved in the settlement talks. Shelby County government is the sole local funder of public education in Memphis with the schools merger that takes effect with the Aug. 5 start of the 2013-2014 school year.

“I guess it’s like you selling your house and the person who is going to buy it and some other party negotiate over it without asking you any questions about it,” countywide school board chairman Billy Orgel said Feb. 15 on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines,” when asked about the talks.

“We were going to have to agree to it. You can’t just lay it in front of us and say, ‘We just spent three months negotiating. You guys, go agree to this so we can settle the court case that you’re really not a part of. But you are the beneficiary of whatever the decision is going to be,’” Orgel added. “I think we should have been (involved), but I understand why we weren’t.”

Orgel said with others working on a settlement, he is confident something could have been worked out.

“It was a funding issue and nothing more, in my opinion,” he said.

School board member Tomeka Hart said the school board didn’t spend enough time discussing whether to get involved.

“We had discussed briefly about trying to join in to be part of it,” she said, adding most on the board wanted to wait and see what happened. “We are suffering the consequences of that decision.”

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