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VOL. 126 | NO. 6 | Monday, January 10, 2011

Snow Day For Schools Standoff

By Bill Dries

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The first lawsuit in the standoff between Shelby County’s two public school systems was to be filed Monday in Chancery Court.

But several inches of snow have slowed for now what has been several weeks of a fast moving series of actions and reactions in the controversy.

A group of Shelby County Commissioners were to also start their work Monday on redistricting by the 2010 U.S. Census results. The meeting has now postponed until Wednesday at 10 a.m.

The redistricting effort will include new district lines for a countywide elected school board including Memphis, according to commission chairman Sidney Chism.

The lawsuit by the group “Citizens for Better Education” will seek to force the Shelby County Election Commission to set a date for a Memphis referendum on a Memphis City Schools (MCS) system charter surrender.

The group is a pro-charter surrender schools consolidation group that Friday announced its formation.

The court action will challenge last week’s legal opinion from Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins.

Goins said the Memphis City Council must give its approval before the charter surrender referendum election date can be set. Because of the legal opinion, the election commission took no action last week on setting an election date.

The court fight to come is likely to involve a 2003 Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion that contradicts the Goins opinion. The AG’s opinion holds no council approval is needed. City Council attorney Allan Wade also issued a legal opinion reacting to the Goins opinion calling it “erroneous.”

The ad hoc redistricting committee chaired by County Commissioner Walter Bailey will begin the once a decade redistricting process. The process already included drawing district boundaries for the existing county school board as well as the county commission.

“He should start to draw the lines for the new school board and that will put in place the mechanism that we can use in order to have an orderly transfer of power if the charter surrender has got to be,” Chism said.

Should voters decide in a referendum to surrender the MCS charter, the two school systems would be consolidated. The seven elected Shelby County school board members who represent districts outside Memphis would remain. Their terms cannot be shortened. But new school board members to represent Memphis could be added.

Chism wants to have those transitional school board members appointed.

“We can’t touch the ones that are already there. That’s law. But we can add to it,” Chism said, adding he would like to call for special school board elections within 90 days.

A weekend preliminary legal opinion prepared for Chism by attorneys Leo Bearman Jr. and Lori H. Patterson backs part of that scenario.

They say the commission can move ahead with plans to draw a set of school board district lines that would include the city of Memphis. And the commission could appoint citizens to fill the added positions to what is now a seven member board.

The seven current board members cannot have their terms shortened in a consolidation of the two public school systems.

There is no provision in state law for a special election to fill any new seats created at least without approval from the Tennessee legislature. The elections to fill the seats with appointees in them could wait until the next county general election or Bearman and Patterson say a court order could require a special election.

"We believe it may be possible to petition a court for a declaratory judgment that a special election is necessary to prevent potential violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution or the Voting Rights Act," they wrote.

Shelby County Attorney Kelly Rayne released a 15 page memo Sunday answering numerous questions posed by commissioners about the proposed charter surrender as well as special school district status sought by the Shelby County school system.

The commissioners will talk more about the legal opinions at an executive session now set for Wednesday at 12:30 p.m.

Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn is leading an effort to get the charter surrender on the ballot with a citizens’ petition that requires at least 25 signatures. He turned in a petition to the election commission Friday with many more signatures than that.

Flinn says once the signatures are checked to make sure those signing are Memphis voters, the election commission has ten days to meet and set a date for the special election. Flinn says he’s not sure where the election date might fall on the calendar but said a February date might be a “tall order.”

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