Suburbs to Discuss Schools Agreement

By Bill Dries

There will be plenty to discuss Friday, Dec. 14, when suburban leaders sit down with their attorneys to talk about some kind of agreement on the terms under which schools in the six suburban municipalities will be part of the merged Shelby County public school system.

But a few parties essential to such an agreement won’t be at the table.

The countywide school board got an invitation to the meeting via a letter earlier this week to board chairman Billy Orgel from Nathan Bicks, one of the attorneys for the suburban leaders.

Orgel told the school board about the letter at Tuesday’s board work session. But he said later neither he nor the board’s attorneys will be attending. He was also quick to emphasize that it doesn’t mean the board is unwilling to talk.

“We’re open to meeting with them,” Orgel said. “We’re not under any time pressure. We’re going to let them have their meeting and talk later.”

And Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is out as a possible mediator of the talks. Tennessee Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis suggested Huffman for the role.

But Kelli Gauthier, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Education said, “I think at this point, we are just hopeful the parties can reach an agreement. But I don’t think the commissioner is going to take an active role in mediating.”

There hasn’t been anything that looks like movement from any side in the legal dispute since U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled on Nov. 27 that all moves toward the suburban municipal schools districts were void and no further moves could be taken at least before the county’s two public school systems merge in August.

But neither has anybody ruled out talking and listening for indications of some kind of framework. There appears to still be a lot of ground between talking and listening and finding in that the material to begin constructing a framework.

In his letter to Orgel, Bicks said the general topic to be discussed Friday is “methods and agreements that can be utilized to resolve the lawsuit and bring the litigation to an end.”

All of his clients have conceded the public schools and their students within their towns and cities will be part of the merged school system starting in August for at least a year.

And most have said they still view the pursuit of municipal school districts beyond year one as their best option until or unless Mays rules, probably sometime next year, on the remaining two state laws that permit municipal school districts to begin anew their formation once the merger becomes reality in August.

Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said earlier this month on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines” that Mays will have to rule on that second part involving the other two state laws.

“Certainly there are things that come kind of close,” she added when asked about acceptable alternatives to a municipal school district. “But there are other issues attached to some of those.”

Those issues might be what the suburban leaders discuss.

And there might also be discussion about the nature of any kind of settlement talks. Specifically, why would those on the prevailing side of Mays’ ruling have any desire to negotiate or compromise on what was secured in the ruling?

The short answer, Kyle said, is the ruling still to come from Mays on two other state laws governing the formation of school districts.

If he rules they do not violate the Tennessee Constitution, the federal court case then moves to claims by the Shelby County Commission that municipal school districts would racially resegregate public schools countywide and thus violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

No one expects the federal constitutional claims to be argued without a much larger, louder and longer civic debate on race.

“What we’ve had for the last two years are people who don’t think they are going to lose,” Kyle said of all sides in the court case, directly and indirectly.

Countywide school board member Martavius Jones said the issue in the court case was so basic it couldn’t be mediated, although Mays tried just before issuing his ruling.

“It is a constitutional issue,” Jones said. “They were arguing, in my opinion, for a right that was only for residents of Shelby County.”

With that question settled for the 2013-2014 school year, the inaugural year of the merger, there could be room for discussion on the remaining decisions still to be made on the merger.

The school board is still making decisions about the merger that have more to do with its structure than its size as measured in students.