Memphis Federal Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled Tuesday, Nov. 27, that the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County must stop their movement toward suburban school districts.
He also threw out August referendum results in which suburban voters approved ballots questions on forming the districts. And he voided the Nov. 6 election results in six sets of school board races for the municipal school districts.
It was unclear late Tuesday if the ruling specifically voids the approval of sales tax hikes on the August suburban ballots that were to be used to fund the municipal school districts.
Read the full text of Memphis Federal Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays’ 65-page ruling that stops Shelby County suburbs from forming municipal school districts and throws out results from the August referendum in which suburban voters approved those districts.
Mays highly anticipated ruling in the federal court case over the formation of the municipal school districts was complex and had several parts, scrambling the Jan. 3 timeline for starting a trial on federal constitutional issues.
“The municipalities are enjoined from proceeding under Chapter 905 to establish municipal school districts,” Mays wrote in the 65-page ruling. He also held that all actions the suburban towns and cities took under the chapters of state law passed by the Tennessee legislature earlier this year are void.
Chapter 905 is one of three state laws passed by the Legislature in 2011 and 2012 known collectively as the “school acts.” They set the ground rules for forming municipal school districts.
Chapter 905 is the amendment to the 2011 legislation that specifically allowed the suburban towns and cities in Shelby County to begin immediately to start the formation of their separate school districts.
Attorneys for the Shelby County Commission argued in their third party complaint that the provision violated the Tennessee Constitution because it was passed as a general law but was written to apply only to Shelby County and with that intent.
Mays agreed in his ruling.
“Chapter 905 establishes a series of conditions that have no reasonable application, present or potential, to any other county,” he wrote. “Although general in form, Public Chapter 905 is local in effect.”
Mays did not rule on the two other state law provisions governing municipal school districts. The county commission made a similar argument that they too were laws passed to apply only to Shelby County.
Mays instead gave all sides until Dec. 11 to submit any additional arguments they might want to make on the state constitutional issues involving those two laws.
If those laws remain in place it could conceivably allow the suburban towns and cities to begin the moves toward municipal school districts starting with the August 2013 start of the merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. But that would mean the municipal school districts could not open for class the same school year as the merger.
Mays also suspended all deadlines for motions in the case which had been scheduled to go to trial on federal constitutional questions starting January 3. In those claims, the commission has argued the municipal school districts would racially resegregate public education in Shelby County.
Earlier in the day Tuesday, before the ruling, Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a law professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, told the Memphis Rotary Club the suburban leaders could appeal a Mays ruling like the one that came immediately to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz who has been a vocal critic of the suburban school districts said the 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."
Bartlett School Board member Bryan Woodruff said it is one of several possible alternatives.
"I think anything is a possibility that serves our children the way they need to be served," he said. "I think we need to look at that. I think we need to look at that even if we expect a good ruling on the next piece of this lawsuit. I think we still need to investigate all possibilities."
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.
The ruling came the day after the Shelby County Election Commission certified results from the Nov. 6 elections including those in the sets of suburban school board races.
"I'm not entirely surprised but I am disappointed," Woodruff said of the ruling. "It does not stop what we are trying to do."