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VOL. 127 | NO. 235 | Monday, December 3, 2012

The Next Steps

Controversial schools ruling has municipalities scrambling for countermove

By Bill Dries

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About a half hour before the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays in the municipal school district lawsuit, the chairman of the countywide school board called for his board and the school boards for the six suburban municipal school districts to get together.

Memphis Federal Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled Nov. 27 that the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County must stop their movement toward school districts.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

“We can work out something that works for our communities that stops the legal battle,” Billy Orgel said. “If we don’t start making choices and taking matters into our own hands, we are all doomed to fail.”

Orgel called for talks on the issues of school building transfers and other issues on which there remain significant differences between suburban and urban citizens as well as elected leaders.

“We need to bypass the process because what is going on in our community is not working,” Orgel said. “I think it is a failure of a lot of public officials not to sit down and work out a solution.”

Mays’ Nov. 27 ruling, which voided all moves toward the suburban school districts to date, stripped away the technical and complex issues that might have been decided if such talks got anywhere.

But at least for now it has brought more challenging long-term underlying issues back to the surface, Byzantine issues obscured by the details of forming new school districts and merging old ones.

Since the ruling, the suburban mayors were set to meet with their attorneys in the case and with each other to talk about their next move.

It could be a set of moves in and out of court. Some of the suburban towns and cities could end their quests while others continue to plan for what seems certain to be a launch of their own school systems later than August, as was the original plan.

The day after the ruling, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald told Facebook followers: “I can assure you that I/we will not give up until every stone is turned to give our city the right set forth in our Charter to educate our children.”

Later he listed several broad possibilities that include both maintaining the legal position and seeking some kind of dialogue that might lead to a settlement.

“Those could include an appeal or legislative relief or some kind of mediation or a combination of those things,” he said.

McDonald has always taken the position that Bartlett’s charter contemplates that city running its own school system even without state laws.

What comes next for schools like Germantown High School is unknown, but a lengthy battle is sure to follow.

 (Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

All six mayors knew Mays could void all of their moves to date toward municipal school districts. Mays said as much when he decided not to stop the referendum questions or the school board elections.

There remain fundamental differences that arguably no court ruling could settle.

The best demonstration of that was when Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash said he endorsed Orgel’s call.

And then Cash added an invitation to suburban leaders to join what until Mays’ ruling looked to be a consolidated public school system consisting of Memphis City Schools and schools in unincorporated Shelby County.

“It’s going to be an urban school system,” Cash said in his invitation. “The municipalities, come in. But we are going to be an urban school system. … We want you to come and be part of a great urban school system.”

The phrase “urban school system” is exactly what suburban leaders and voters have used to describe what they don’t want.

“We have to have systems that are flexible and adaptable. And we know that a large system cannot accomplish that,” said Bryan Woodruff, a Bartlett school board member, whose election to the municipal school board had just been certified by the Shelby County Election Commission the day before Mays’ ruling disbanded that and the five other suburban school boards elected in November.

You have to write a policy that will serve everyone equally. The problem with that is the needs of a child in South Memphis are very different than the needs of someone in East Memphis. They are both equally capable of achieving an excellent education. But their needs are completely different.”

– Bryan WoodruffBartlett school board member

“You have to write a policy that will serve everyone equally. The problem with that is the needs of a child in South Memphis are very different than the needs of someone in East Memphis,” Woodruff said. “They are both equally capable of achieving an excellent education. But their needs are completely different. And you cannot write a school policy to fulfill both of those very different needs and be consistent.”

It’s not the first time the difference in the basic definition of the merged school system has surfaced.

“I think we are an urban school district and I think we need to talk about the challenges we are going to have as an urban school district,” school board member Sara Lewis said in August as an ad hoc committee worked toward a process for selecting a merger superintendent. “We need to talk about the challenges we are going to have as a merged school district with a suburban school district.”

The Rev. Maxie Dunnam of Christ United Methodist Church, one of the non-school board members on the panel, differed.

“It’s urban, suburban and rural,” he said. “We’re not determining the kind of district we have. That’s already determined for us.”

Former Shelby County Commissioner Bridget Chisholm, chosen for the panel because of her business background, took it further.

“We are actually all three,” she said. “We’re not trading off urban kids for suburban kids or rural kids for suburban kids or vice versa.”

Three months later the question still isn’t settled.

Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz who has been a vocal critic of the suburban school districts, said Mays’ ruling “vindicates the County Commission’s position that the law was clearly unfair and only applied to Shelby County.”

“Frankly, I think they are going to have a very difficult time correcting that problem in Nashville,” he said of possible attempts to pass new state laws permitting such school districts. “I think what is probably going to happen is the municipalities will go to charter schools.”

McDonald acknowledged charter schools are on a list of possibilities.

“We might talk about that,” he said.

They had been discussed earlier. But charter schools would be an option short of the ideal arrangement from the mayors’ perspective.

Charter schools have autonomy to some degree with their contract arrangements with school boards. But the contracts are ultimately approved or rejected or dropped by a countywide school board that is majority Memphis in its district make-up because Memphis and its population are the majority in the county.

In a speech to the Memphis Rotary Club hours before last week’s court ruling, Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy also mentioned the charter option.

“Charter schools might very well solve the whole thing,” he said. “I don’t see what the problem with that would be especially since the overall trend in education in Tennessee seems to be moving in the direction of more liberal granting of charters. … Why wouldn’t we want to do that?”

Ritz speculated about whether some or all of the suburban mayors would “fall on their swords” for guiding voter sentiment to a legally suspect remedy.

Woodruff wasn’t willing to say it was a mistake. But he acknowledged the rapid political moves in Nashville may have fueled the sentiment.

The swiftly passed amendments to the 2011 laws on municipal school districts that the legislature passed earlier this year were what triggered Mays’ decision. He concluded the amendment that allowed the suburbs to move ahead with school districts immediately and no longer wait for the start of the schools merger in August 2013 to make their first moves was written to apply only to Shelby County.

Because it was passed as a general law by the legislature, Mays ruled it violated the Tennessee Constitution.

“With the changes in the law, we suddenly had an opportunity to move forward,” Woodruff said. “So, we moved forward with a kind of tunnel vision based on this being our opportunity to achieve that and do what’s best for our children and our beliefs. Now that we are having to regroup, I think we need to look very seriously at all options and try to determine which one is the best given the current landscape.”

Woodruff said he and others would probably continue to meet as citizens to make plans even though the ruling voids the formation of the school board as well as any actions that board may take.

“I’m not entirely surprised but I am disappointed,” Woodruff said of the ruling. “It does not stop what we are trying to do.”

But just as those in the suburbs are making judgments about the motives of a school board that is majority Memphis, their motives are also being judged by those in Memphis and other places.

“They don’t want their kids in the unified school district next September,” said Ritz, who lives in Germantown. “I think because of that fear and emotion, I suspect more than one of the suburbs I bet will go to charter schools.”

Mulroy said the merger of city and county school systems that began in late 2010 and prompted the response of municipal school districts has accomplished three goals already: a safe source of public local funding for education countywide, eliminating double taxation of Memphians for public education, and more equitable school funding countywide.

“The first three have already been achieved regardless of what happens with regard to municipal school districts and the litigation and all of that stuff,” he said before turning to three more goals of the merger that “still hang in the balance and may or may not be achieved.”

Those are a more efficient single school system that avoids duplication and two much broader goals.

One is to “promote integration, not by busing, not by departing from a neighborhood-based school attendance zone system,” Mulroy said.

The other is “fostering an end to the ‘us versus them’ mentality – the city versus county mentality.”

“The next generation of students could grow up thinking of themselves as people who belong to one Shelby County school system as opposed to two or ... possibly seven,” he said.

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