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VOL. 129 | NO. 49 | Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Court Dismissal Leaves Matter of School Board Restructuring

By Bill Dries

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UPDATE: U.S. District Judge Samuel "Hardy" Mays approved Tuesday, March 11, the Shelby County Commission's plan to restructure the Shelby County Schools board to a nine-member board with the August 2014 elections.

U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays has approved the settlements that end a court fight over the formation of suburban school districts. The remaining issue is the restructuring of the Shelby County Schools board to a nine-member body.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

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U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays isn’t quite done with the three-year-old case over the reformation of public schools in Shelby County.

His court order Monday, March 10, means the end of the last major claim of the case and all remaining legal claims still pending.

Mays’ Monday ruling also comes with the court’s approval of the agreements on the formation of the six suburban school systems that included the transfer of school buildings from Shelby County Schools to the six suburban districts and the broad parameters of open enrollment provisions in each of the six districts.

“The court has reviewed the terms of the agreements and finds them reasonable,” Mays wrote in his court order. “They are consistent with the consent decree entered on Sept. 28, 2011, reflecting a consensus among the parties on ‘the best way to resolve the complex institutional reform at issue.’”

Mays noted in Monday’s order that his court retains jurisdiction over the consent decree “for the limited purpose of interpreting and enforcing the terms of the agreements of the settlement and compromise.”

That leaves the matter of the commission’s proposed restructuring of the Shelby County Schools board to a nine-member body with districts that take in the city of Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County but leave out the six suburban towns and cities.

The plan the commission approved last month is awaiting Mays’ action as the April 3 filing deadline for candidates in the August elections nears. Some candidates have already pulled petition for the plan to convert what is now a seven-member school board covering the entire county, including the suburbs, to a 13-member board also covering the entire county.

The commission approved the 13-member plan last year, and Mays consented after he ruled that the six new seats would not be filled by appointments made by the commission, but instead by the result of elections this August.

The commission moved to change the school board’s structure yet again, citing the formation of the suburban school systems and the election of separate school boards last year in each of the six towns and cities.

The 2011 consent decree was the agreement in which all sides agreed to terms that included conceding the basic right of Memphis voters to surrender the Memphis City Schools charter, which made its merger with Shelby County Schools possible.

The move to establish suburban school systems was expected by all parties to be a reaction to the merger. But the path to those school systems came with a delay after Mays ruled the first attempt at state legislation to establish the districts violated the Tennessee Constitution.

Lawmakers in Nashville then changed the state law to make it legal statewide instead of just applying to Shelby County, which was the violation at the heart of Mays’ earlier ruling.

The dismissal Monday specifically ends a later claim by the Shelby County Commission that the formation of the suburban school districts violated the Tennessee Constitution as well as the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by effectively racially resegregating public schools in Shelby County.

Suburban leaders vehemently denied the federal claim, but began talks with the commission as well as Shelby County Schools leaders because resolving the claim in court would probably have taken years and delayed the opening of suburban school systems by years – not to mention the expense in legal fees.

With Mays’ ruling, the commission claims are dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning the commission cannot refile the claims. That was a key provision in the settlement agreements.

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