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VOL. 127 | NO. 233 | Thursday, November 29, 2012

Court Decision Not End to Schools Fight

By Bill Dries

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About a half hour before the ruling Tuesday, Nov. 27, by Memphis federal 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.

“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 acknowledged that the ruling from Mays was expected at any moment. And it was posted in the electronic case file just as the school board meeting ended.

Federal Judge Samuel "Hardy" Mays' 65-page municipal schools ruling

“All actions taken under the authority of Chapter 905 are void,” Mays wrote in a ruling that referred specifically to one of three state laws – the one passed by the Tennessee Legislature earlier this year that specifically allowed the suburban towns and cities in Shelby County to begin immediately to start the formation of their separate school districts.

“The municipalities are enjoined from proceeding under Chapter 905 to establish municipal school districts,” Mays continued in the 65-page ruling.

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. The next step would have been the swearing in of the school board members.

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

With the ruling Mays threw out August referendum results in which suburban voters approved ballot 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 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.

Still in place at least until Mays turns his attention to them next month are two other state laws passed and signed into law in 2011 and 2012. They and Chapter 905 set the ground rules for forming municipal school districts.

Attorneys for the Shelby County Commission argued in their third-party complaint that Chapter 905 and the other two violated the Tennessee Constitution because they were passed as general laws but written to apply only to Shelby County and with that intent.

Mays agreed in his ruling on one of the three.

“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 gave all sides until Dec. 11 to submit any additional arguments they might want to make on the state constitutional issues involving the other 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 beginning but not before the August 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 begins.

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