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VOL. 126 | NO. 155 | Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Decision Leaves Board Question Unanswered

By Bill Dries

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Attorneys for all of the sides in the schools consolidation court case have a Friday, Aug. 12, deadline that will set the stage for the next crucial part of the landmark court case.

What does a new countywide school board look like and when is there a transition to that school board?

Federal Judge Hardy Mays ruled Monday that the county school system controls the move toward consolidation of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, which Mays ruled, will take place in August 2013. But he also ruled the county school board districts, which do not include the city of Memphis, are unconstitutional and have to be redrawn or changed in some way.

He gave the attorneys on all sides through Friday to suggest remedies.

Attorneys for all of the sides met with Mays for about an hour and a half Tuesday afternoon in a closed conference.

Shelby County school officials and attorneys left the session early. County schools superintendent John Aitken told reporters there might be some further word of the school system's next move at a special board meeting Wednesday at 3 p.m.

"We just talked about how we are going to advance the case and get it over with," said City Council Attorney Allan Wade as he and others left the conference later.

Wade said the council will be among the parties submitting plans for a countywide school board by or at the Friday deadline.

Mays' 146-page ruling left some clues about how he will judge the ideas.

He wrote the county school board “is no longer responsible only for a separate and distinct school system outside the city of Memphis.”

“It now has ultimate responsibility for educating Memphis school children, making final decisions about the education of those children, and overseeing the transition process to a combined school system that the board unanimously opposed,” he continued.

Mays talked in even clearer terms about the county school board making “present decisions of the utmost importance to Memphis residents.”

“They cannot be delayed until the transition process has been completed,” Mays wrote. “They are an essential part of that process. Despite Memphis residents’ substantial and direct interests in the board’s decisions, the Shelby County Board of Education has no representatives elected by Memphis voters and has unanimously opposed assuming control of Memphis City Schools.”

But still later, Mays cited past court rulings on the issue of one person, one vote representation in which courts have considered “the proximity of a forthcoming election” and “can reasonably endeavor to avoid a disruption of the election process.”

All sides in the fast-moving multisided court action are weighing whether they will appeal the ruling. They are also weighing whether the other sides will appeal.

“I don’t see how the county school board can appeal. He pretty well gave them Norris-Todd in the time frame,” said County Commission chairman Sidney Chism, referring to the state law that establishes a 21-member planning commission and the August 2013 consolidation start date. “What he didn’t give them was the ability to set up a board where they govern and where they continue to do what they’re doing.”

Mays ruled the Shelby County Commission’s attempt to appoint an expanded 25-member countywide school board – a movement the commission halted just hours before it was to make the appointments – is invalid because the commission “lacks authority” under state law to expand the board to that size.

Chism reads Mays’ decision to mean that the commission could possibly expand the board to some number less than 25 members. He said the commission has a plan ready to remedy the violation Mays ruled on.

“He did not say that we couldn’t increase it. He just said that we couldn’t take it to 25,” Chism said cautioning that his reading of the ruling was tentative. “If we can expand it then we’ll just talk about that (Friday). If not, it’s evident that the present board as it exists would no longer exist once we give him a plan.”

It may be the latter. Mays’ ruling reads: “The Tennessee Court of Appeals has found that the Shelby County charter requires that the Shelby County Board of Education have seven members. The Shelby County charter has not changed.”

Immediate reaction to the ruling from all sides was guarded with no one involved saying whether or not they would appeal.

The most extensive public conversation was between MCS board members and their attorney Dorsey Hopson at a working session of the school board Monday evening.

MCS board members questioned whether the county school board will be allowed to make critical decisions on a transition up to August 2013 without Mays putting in place a remedy that means a different elected school board.

MCS board chairman Martavius Jones expressed the specific concern that the existing school board might deed county school buildings to a special school district in some part of the county outside Memphis yet to be created.

“When we talk about the property that Memphians have built, we can’t have an unconstitutional body say this belongs to a special school district,” Jones said at a board meeting Monday evening.

“I’m very confident that the court is going to fashion a remedy to address the constitutional issues much sooner rather than later,” Hopson told Jones. “I can’t see the court allowing for a situation where there’s an unconstitutional body making decisions that affect Memphis for any significant time if not any time at all.”

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