Schools Suit Could Find Judge Soon

By Bill Dries

If attorneys for Shelby County Schools can find a federal judge this week, they may be in court after early voting begins Wednesday in the schools consolidation referendum.

In a wide-ranging lawsuit filed Friday, the school system went after more than just the Memphis City Council, which voted last week to ratify the Memphis City Schools board charter surrender vote of Dec. 20.

The lawsuit was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays Monday.

It takes on the original MCS board charter surrender vote as well and the general concept of a transition plan, even the one included in the schools consolidation law passed into law last week in Nashville.

“The Memphis City Schools and the Memphis City Council have failed and refused to follow any such procedures and have created, thereby, a chaotic and dangerous vacuum by ending the legal foundation for the operation of the public schools of the city of Memphis,” the lawsuit reads. “It is legally and factually impossible for the Shelby County schools to immediately begin to operate the city of Memphis public school system without the employment of a thoughtful plan of transition.”

The lawsuit seeks an expedited hearing and a declaratory judgment that either lays out when a transfer to consolidated status would happen or specifically declares the MCS board’s Dec. 20 charter surrender resolution “null and void … thereby relieving the Shelby County Schools of any immediate responsibility for the affairs of the City of Memphis public school system.”

The lawsuit singles out the MCS board’s vote as “hasty, irrational and unilateral.”

But at another point in the complaint, attorneys for the county school system acknowledge the system has “obligations under both state and federal law to provide a free public education” to Memphis children.

“It is Shelby County Schools’ intention to comply with these obligations in full and ensure that each school-age child within the boundaries of the city of Memphis and, in fact with the boundaries of Shelby County, is provided a free public education,” the lawsuit read before again saying it is “impossible for Shelby County Schools to perform its obligations … without some intervention by the court.”

The state legislation that became law Friday with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature lengthens the transition period for schools consolidation to two and half years and opens the door to special school district status or municipal school district status for suburban leaders who have sought either status to block consolidation.

MCS board member Tomeka Hart, responding to the lawsuit at a Friday schools forum on WKNO, said the suit targets a lawful action.

“You would have to say somehow Memphis was unfairly taking advantage of a law that’s on the books,” Hart said. “If it was bad, it should have been repealed. Sometimes the best way to get a question answered is to take it to court.”

County school board chairman David Pickler made clear in a separate interview as part of the same forum that he is also shutting down a request by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. connected to the council ratification of the MCS charter surrender.

Wharton had talked of working out an agreement for city government to run MCS in the interim between now and the schools consolidation vote and possibly after the vote if the consolidation is approved by Memphis voters.

“We believe that the action taken by the City Council (Thursday) was an action that was not lawful,” Pickler said. “Memphis City Schools is not a municipal school district. We do not believe that Mayor Wharton has any responsibility under the law.”

Wharton conceded any agreement would depend on the approval of county schools leaders.

The council action is based on a disputed legal opinion that the vote immediately dissolved the city school system but preserved the March 8 referendum.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday he signed the schools consolidation bill into law because it allowed the March 8 referendum and set a transition process.

Haslam he hoped that after the election “everybody not come into it with any preconceived notions or fears about what would happen” but instead move to a transition with an “honest, wholehearted effort.”