Two months after all sides in the federal court case over the reformation of public education in Shelby County settled their remaining differences over the formation of suburban school districts, the judge in the case is about to review a new part of the three-year-old lawsuit.
On its way to U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays is the restructuring of the Shelby County Schools board to a nine-member body that also excludes the county’s six suburban cities and towns from representation.
The Shelby County Commission approved the plan and set of district lines Monday, Feb. 24, in a resolution that got seven votes.
There is no indication when Mays might rule on the plan. But Mays has the final say under terms of the consent decree.
Attorney Lori Patterson, who represents the commission in the court case, on Monday indicated time was growing short for the commission to change what would otherwise be a conversion of the school board from its present seven members to a 13-district plan covering the entire county, including the suburban towns and cities.
The 13-district plan was also the creation of the commission to take effect with the results from the 2014 school board races on the August ballot.
But Commissioner Mike Ritz pushed for a nine-member plan after all six suburban towns and cities began forming their own school systems.
Candidates in the school board races began pulling qualifying petitions in January. And Election Commission officials had said March 3, one month from the April 3 filing deadline for candidates, was the latest they could wait for a change to the ballot.
“We are standing on one foot, waiting,” said former Shelby County Schools board member Freda Williams, who is among those who have already pulled petitions to run for school board.
No one on the commission expressed support Monday for leaving the school board at 13 districts covering the entire county. The debate was over a seven-member plan or a nine-member plan.
Some commissioners wanted a redistricting plan, preferably of seven districts, to include what they described as an “isthmus” or “peninsula” that included the site of Germantown High School and took in 359 homes within Germantown’s borders.
Commissioner Mark Billingsley sought the area because Germantown Elementary, Middle and High schools will remain part of Shelby County Schools once separate school systems in each of the six suburban towns and cities begin operation with the new academic year in August.
Billingsley said it is a symbolic effort to give Germantown parents a representative on the school board they can call “if you want to be fair. If you want to stop the rhetoric.”
That was a reference to what Commissioner Heidi Shafer termed the “war” that “caused us to consolidate a school system and then deconsolidate a school system in two years.” The commission has been an integral player in the political drama, and the commission’s debates have been the setting for some of the most contentious discussions over the last three years.
“There is no magic to any number,” Shafer added. “Put an end to all of the push and pull. … Let’s get out of the mode of constantly butting heads with everyone around us.”
Ritz described nine districts and nine school board members as “perfect.”
“Seven is not a representative number for Memphis,” he said. “We are diverse.”
Ritz also said there was “no rational reason” to give Germantown residents representation on the school board since they have their own elected school board.
Someone could conceivably file a motion before Mays making the case for or against the commission’s nine-member plan. There has been no indication of an effort to legally contest it as the commission has debated the matter in recent weeks and months.
Meanwhile, all sides in the part of the lawsuit filed by the commission contesting the creation of the suburban school districts filed a joint motion for dismissal with prejudice in January and are awaiting a ruling from Mays on that aspect of the case.
The dismissal motion came after a settlement among all sides that set the terms for the transfer of school buildings in the suburban towns and cities to the still-forming suburban school systems.
The buildings were transferred with varying payments from each of the cities and towns to Shelby County Schools that was not the cost of the building but an amount in consideration for the pension and benefits burden Shelby County Schools still has for teachers, regardless of whether those teachers remain with the system or join the new suburban school districts.