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VOL. 126 | NO. 68 | Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mum’s the Word on Wharton’s Involvement in Schools

By Bill Dries

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If there will be talks to settle the schools consolidation lawsuit out of court, they will probably be conducted out of the public spotlight as much as possible and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. probably will be the circumspect moderator.

The atmosphere will be much different than the political run up to the court case in which all sides mapped out their stands in the most public ways possible.

So public and so detailed some of those who would be involved in the talks believe it is a formidable barrier to reaching a compromise.

Wharton acknowledged he has been approached about being “a facilitator – not a broker.”

“I don’t have any power to broker it. … It’s premature to say that any offers have been made,” he said in his first public comments since U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays put the case on hold to explore a settlement.

“There is no plan. There is an idea as to what a plan would look like. But there is not a – ‘here is the plan,’” Wharton said after an hour-long, closed-door attorney-client session Tuesday with Memphis City Council members and their attorneys as well as City Attorney Herman Morris. “There have been discussions – unilateral discussions, not bilateral discussions – I’ll put it that way. I can’t say much, alright?”

Wharton wouldn’t say whether the schools case was discussed in the closed session or a still-tentative settlement for ongoing city funding of the Memphis City Schools system.

“I’m not going to kiss and tell,” Wharton responded when asked about the latter.

Council member Shea Flinn said if the lawsuit settlement makes progress it will be difficult.

“I have trouble envisioning what sort of compromise could be hammered out. I’d almost need someone to prime the pump on that,” he said. “We object to some parts of Norris-Todd (law) and the applicability of Norris-Todd to this thing. I don’t know how you can mediate anything better for the county (schools) than the Norris-Todd bill currently provides.”

The Norris-Todd law, which became law in February, establishes a two-and-a-half year planning period and planning commission for the transition to schools consolidation. It also opens the door to special school district or municipal school district status favored by suburban opponents of schools consolidation.

The city of Memphis, the City Council and the Shelby County Commission claim in their court filings that the law is illegal and unconstitutional.

Flinn said they and the other parties in the lawsuit have done such a good job in making their cases that it could be hard to start the ball rolling on a compromise.

But Wharton counters that a court order governing the consolidation process might be something the attorneys on all sides want to avoid.

“Judges have a secretary and two law clerks basically. It’s hard to handle their caseload and then you ask them to kind of take over something as complicated as this,” said Wharton who is an attorney. “Now if this were two businesses that were going out of business and were going to be gone in a few days – but this is going to be with us for a long, long time.”

Wharton cited the county and city schools desegregation cases, each with court orders governing the school systems and spanning decades.

“There’s been a drastic change in the philosophy of the federal court since those days,” he said. “Federal courts just don’t like getting involved with something unless they just ultimately have to.”

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