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VOL. 128 | NO. 42 | Friday, March 01, 2013

Merger Special Master Could Have Different Terms

By Bill Dries

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The Shelby County Commission, the city of Memphis and suburban Shelby County leaders all agree details of the merger of public schools in Shelby County could come down to a federal court order.

But in their filings Wednesday, Feb. 27, in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, there are some differences in how the three parties in the federal lawsuit believe the court might become involved directly in the merger.

Two of the three advocate the return of an emphasis on the work of the consolidation planning commission and its recommendations on a merger.

Between the current path to a merger being pursued by the countywide school board and court-ordered terms for a merger is a “special master” who would be appointed by federal Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

All three parties advocated that Mays appoint a special master. And all three said the 2011 consent decree agreed to by all parties setting the terms of the merger clearly give Mays broad authority to act if the school board doesn’t by a certain time.

Mays has not indicated when he will make his decision on a special master. Watch The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com, for updates.

Mays raised the possibility of a special master during a status conference Monday in which he invited the attorney for the countywide school board. The school board is not a party in the 2-year-old lawsuit.

The school board voted Tuesday to take no position on a special master.

The state of Tennessee filed no response by the Wednesday court deadline.

The commission, the city and the suburban leaders all agreed that they are concerned about the short amount of time, less than 124 days, until the Aug. 5 start of the first school year as a consolidated school system.

The city of Memphis and the Memphis City Council said in their filing a master should be appointed by Mays “at a minimum to determine if the current board has the present ability and/or inclination to complete … tasks … necessary for a merged school system to begin in August 2013.”

City Council attorney Allan Wade wrote, in behalf of the city administration and the City Council, that the set of recommendations made last August by the consolidation planning commission should be a “default” merger plan in the event the school board can’t resolve differences over some parts of the merger. The city also advocates the master move ahead and make specific recommendations to Mays and the school board on the two issues Wade wrote “scream for immediate attention:” the immediate selection of a superintendent and whether to close underutilized schools in both school systems.

If the board doesn’t act on those two issues “within a short period of time,” the city’s position is Mays could consult with the special master and make the decision on both issues.

The Shelby County Commission filing advocates that a special master at first monitor school board meetings. Based on that, the master would report to Mays on “the progress made in implementing the consolidation with a particular emphasis on progress in the adoption of the (planning commission) plan” as well as the selection of a superintendent and adoption of a budget for the first fiscal year of the merged school system, which begins July 1.

Attorney Lori Patterson, representing the commission, wrote that the master should then “be provided with such authority as this court sees fit to assure that progress is made in these areas, such that a full consolidation of the two school systems can occur.”

Leaders from all six suburban towns and cities suggested in their filing by attorney Tom Cates that the special master could do “fact gathering to determine the most pressing issues and decisions to be made with respect to the transition, establish fixed dates for the resolution of those issues and to make recommendations to the court as to their resolution if decisions are not timely made.”

The suburban leaders did not suggest names for the special master’s position.

The city and the County Commission each suggested FedEx Corp. general counsel Christine Richards who was a member of the planning commission.

The commission also suggested retired Circuit Court judge and former Memphis City Schools board member George Brown. The city’s list included planning commission member Staley Cates and planning commission Chairwoman Barbara Prescott, who is also a former Memphis City Schools board member.

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