U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays plans to move ahead with appointing a special master to oversee the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems.
That’s what he told attorneys Monday, Feb. 25, during a one-hour closed status conference in his conference room Downtown.
Memphis City Council attorney Allan Wade said after the conference that Mays plans to appoint the special master called for in a 2011 consent decree sometime after Wednesday.
“He wanted to know where they were on that process because as he views it, that has to happen,” Wade said. “He put in place a special master to guide the school board in getting that done. Where he is now is contemplating appointing that person to make sure that we have a combined school system by July or August 2013. He’s firm with that.”
July 1 is the start of the fiscal year and Aug. 5 is the first day of classes for the 2013-2014 school year.
In the court order that followed the morning conference, Mays formally asks for the name of one or more people he should consider to be the special master as well as their position on whether the court should actually appoint the master and whether the appointment should come with duties that are more explicitly stated.
Mays also noted in the order that the consent decree "provides that the court retains jurisdiction to enforce the consent decree and has the authority to appoint a special master to assist in implementing the decree."
Mays signaled his intent to do that one week after members of the countywide school board voted down two motions to add items to their agenda that would have delayed the merger start date a year and phased it in over several years.
The school board has also put together a tentative merger budget that seeks $145 million in new funding from the Shelby County Commission and most on the commission have indicated there is no support for that level of new funding.
Both school systems will pay the expense of the special master under terms of the 2011 settlement.
Meanwhile, all sides are still awaiting a ruling from Mays on two state laws governing the creation of municipal school districts sought by suburban leaders. Those laws allow the suburban leaders to begin a new movement toward those school districts once the merger begins.
Mays has heard arguments from all sides on claims by the Shelby County Commission that the laws violate the Tennessee Constitution. Efforts by all sides to work out a settlement among themselves on that issue ended earlier this month with no agreement.
Wade said Mays told attorneys he views meeting the merger date as more urgent.
“I think this is the more immediate issue for him – seeing that the consent decree is enforced,” Wade said, also addressing legislation pending in the Tennessee General Assembly that could make a court ruling on the municipal school districts laws moot.
“Whatever the state does is not going to impact 2013,” Wade said. “The kids have to go to school in 2013. Whatever the state does, the state does but you’ve still got to have a school system up and running for everybody in 2013.”