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VOL. 126 | NO. 65 | Monday, April 4, 2011

School Consolidation Parties Agree to Begin Talks

By Bill Dries

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All of the sides in the schools consolidation lawsuit have agreed to begin talks to resolve the lawsuit and possibly set new terms for the consolidation of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

And Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has reportedly offered a proposal to start the settlement talks.

Federal Judge Hardy Mays was to hear arguments Monday on a motion by five of the seven Shelby County Schools board members to order the Shelby County Commission to stop its move to appoint members to a 25-member countywide school board.

A ruling by Mays on the matter would have been his first in the complex multi-sided lawsuit originally filed in February by the county school system.

But Mays called the attorneys for all eight sides into his chambers first to see if they were willing to take a suggestion he made at a scheduling conference two weeks ago.

“You could resolve this,” Mays told them at the March 24 conference. “My experience is courts are terrible places to make public policy. … I would encourage settlement.”

Mays said again Monday that an “informal resolution is always superior to litigation itself.”

The goal of the “good faith” talks as outlined by Mays is to settle all issues in the multi-sided lawsuit without the court having to decide them.

Mays didn’t enter a court order setting conditions for the settlement talks, saying he is “relying on the good faith representations of counsel.”

County Commission attorney Leo Bearman confirmed for Mays that his clients would not move to change the existing county school board at least until the next scheduled hearing on April 19.

All sides could come back to Mays earlier if they are able to reach a settlement. Mays could check on their progress April 19 and determine whether to give them more time or pick up where Monday’s hearing left off, the request for a court order to block the commission from changing the school board that controls the terms of a consolidation transition.

What emerged during the half-hour closed session was word from City Attorney Herman Morris that Wharton had a proposal.

“If we stay in court, it’s going to be a long, drawn-out battle and rather expensive. … We need to try to settle it,” said Shelby County Commission chairman Sidney Chism after Monday’s hearing. “I’m hearing that A C has a proposal and he’s trying to get all parties together. I think he’s probably the best person suited to try to bring the parties together. And he’s going to try to get something on the table so everybody can agree to it.”

Outside court, Morris would only say that all sides will discuss a settlement at the request of Mays and declined to reveal specifics of Wharton’s proposal.

“I can’t comment on anything pending,” Morris told reporters. “He said he’s going to continue the matter to (April) 19 to allow the parties time to have conversations. That will be reported back to the judge if, in fact, the conversations take place.”

Wharton was in Washington Monday and could not be reached for comment.

But last month, he had indicated he was considering asking Mays to order settlement talks.

“I’ll tell you what I’d like to see if I were practicing law,” Wharton told reporters on March 19. “The courts now have the authority to order parties to sit down and talk.”

That’s not what Mays did Monday.

Wharton’s earlier comments indicated if settlement talks without a court order gain traction, they could take a while.

“It won’t be soon. Anybody who thinks they’ll wake up three months from now and it’s all over – I just don’t see that happening,” Wharton said of the path to consolidation in general. “Even if everybody were cooperating fully, it will take much longer than that. We need to be in for the long haul.”

Chism said Monday the talks will be complex because it’s not as simple as getting two sides to agree.

“If there’s a compromise, it’s got to be a two-fold or three-fold situation where everybody gets something,” he said.

There had been rumors of settlement talks in the weeks between Mays’ first scheduling conference and Monday’s first hearing in the case.

The problem for those trying to build a framework for the settlement talks was fear that proposals might be rejected out of hand by the different sides based on who was making the offer.

The political drama leading up to the first sessions – last month and this month – in U.S. District Court was a series of actions by the competing elected bodies, each designed to checkmate what the others were trying to accomplish.

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