Commission’s Schools Debate Has Political Crossover

By Bill Dries

When U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays summoned attorneys from all sides in the schools merger case to his conference room Monday, Feb. 25, there was someone else in the room.

Mays specifically invited Valerie Speakman, attorney for the countywide school board, to the status conference even though the school board as an entity is not a party in the 2-year-old lawsuit.

Mays, quizzed Speakman according to those present, about what steps the school board has taken toward the scheduled Aug. 5 date when classes begin for the consolidated school system.

What he heard prompted him to consider appointing a special master to oversee the merger. All sides in the lawsuit have through Wednesday, Feb. 27, to file their responses, including names of people Mays might appoint to the position.

“I think if that’s what the judge wants, that’s what we’re going to have,” said Shelby County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz, who was briefed by the commission’s attorneys but who waited outside the conference room with reporters.

“They haven’t been there before,” he said of the presence of school board attorneys. “They are not a party to the lawsuit and obviously they knew what they were going to be asked.

“I think they knew they were coming in there to see ‘the principal.’ And I think the principal has identified what he wants and here we go.”

Ritz commented just before Monday’s County Commission meeting in which the commission’s agenda and discussion were dominated by items related to the schools merger.

The commission approved on the second of three readings Monday, Feb. 25, an ordinance that give Memphis City Schools teachers living outside Shelby County five years to move within Shelby County.

They also approved on first reading an ordinance that would put the question of eliminating any residency requirements in county government to voters across the county on the August 2014 ballot.

The five-year grace period ordinance was stripped of an amendment that would have exempted all teachers currently working for both school systems from having to comply with the residency requirement.

But the commission left intact a second amendment that exempts teachers and staff hired before Sept. 1, 1986. That was the date the county home rule charter took effect. The home rule charter includes the residency requirement for county government employees that includes Shelby County Schools teachers.

Memphis City Schools does not have a residency requirement.

As it did last week in committee, the commission debate quickly moved into the issue of residency requirements. And in that debate, commissioners lined up differently.

“We don’t need freeloaders and that’s what they are,” Commissioner Walter Bailey said of educators who work for Memphis City Schools but live outside Shelby County. “They are exploiting us.”

Commissioner Heidi Shafer agreed.

“Apparently there is no place safe enough to live in Shelby County,” she said sarcastically. “It is so onerous. In fact, I don’t even know why I live here.”

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, however, saw the issue differently.

“This should be about making our county a place where people want to live,” he said. “I just don’t think it is our business where people live.”

Commissioner Henri Brooks agreed with Bunker, something that happens just about as often as Shafer agrees with Bailey – rarely.

“Why would we be so punitive to a handful of teachers?” Brooks asked. “We’re not using common sense. We are going to drive away experienced teachers. I don’t want to burden people who are charged with educating our children.”

Meanwhile, the commission approved a resolution delayed at two previous meetings to transfer $300,000 from the commission’s contingency fund to pay legal fees from the municipal schools court case.

And the body voted down a resolution that would have instructed attorneys for the commission to drop that part of the federal court case dealing with municipal school districts.

With both resolutions, commissioners moved back to the 8-5 split that has defined the body on schools merger issues that don’t stray into other issues.

Commissioner Terry Roland argued the commission should drop its court challenge of the state laws governing the formation of municipal school districts favored by suburban leaders. He argued bills now pending in the legislature mean the municipal schools districts will become a reality regardless of what Mays rules in the pending case.

“Why don’t we get out of the way?” he asked.

“It takes two to do a foxtrot,” answered Bailey, saying the lawsuit began in February 2011 as the Shelby County Board of Education filed suit seeking to stop the schools merger.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy said suburban leaders could have negotiated an end to the litigation over municipal school districts in the last three months but instead walked away from the talks.