School Changes Continue on Many Fronts

By Bill Dries

There won’t be much waiting around for a federal court ruling with this week’s set of suburban school board elections now decided.

The six boards are the latest move toward the formation of municipal school districts in each of the suburban cities.

But still to come is a ruling from Memphis federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on whether the laws that set the ground rules for those school districts are constitutional under terms of the Tennessee Constitution.

It is hard to overestimate the importance and impact of Mays’ ruling on the state constitutional issues. The ruling is the point at which the plans being made in the suburbs are scrapped, delayed from a crucial start date alongside the start of the consolidated countywide school system in August, or cemented into place.

But it won’t necessarily be the end of what is at least a three-stage court case.

After this week’s elections, the members for the six municipal school boards are in place. Still to come is the federal ruling on the constitutionality of the districts.

There was a reminder of that the day after suburban voters went to the polls to elect six separate school boards – one for each city or town.

Attorneys for the Shelby County Commission filed a motion Wednesday, Nov. 7, to compel the state of Tennessee to turn over “any and all documents or communications” to state legislators, Gov. Bill Haslam and any staff members from constituents related to the schools reformation in Shelby County.

It is a renewal of a request the attorneys made in September when they also asked for the identity of readers of The Commercial Appeal who commented on stories in the newspaper about the schools reformation and state legislation connected to it.

Attorney Lori Patterson contended in this week’s filing that the emails and other communication from constituents are critical to the argument in the next phase of the case. In that part of the case they argue that the municipal school districts violate the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause because they amount to racial resegregation of public schools in Shelby County.

Patterson argues the communications help to establish the intent of legislators and are “directly relevant to the determination of whether racial considerations were a motivating factor behind those desires.”

Attorneys for the state of Tennessee rejected the earlier request and argued that the Tennessee Legislature isn’t a part of the federal lawsuit. They also contend the communications are part of the “deliberative process privilege.”

But the Tennessee attorney general, who represents the legislature, is named as a defendant. And attorneys for the Shelby County Commission argue there have been past court decisions allowing access to such communications notably in the federal corruption case of former state Sen. Ed Gillock of Memphis.

Legislators who sponsored and supported the legislation in 2011 and 2012 vehemently deny any racial motivation.

That part of the case is scheduled to go to trial before Mays in January. If Mays rules the state laws violate the Tennessee Constitution and are void in part or entirely, it would make the federal constitutional claims moot. But that’s one possibility of several.

If the federal constitutional claims go to trial in January, Mays has said the case becomes even more complex. He has likened the claims to the equivalent of a schools desegregation case in its much broader scope.

The motions being filed now are part of a court calendar Mays established for moving to the nonjury trial as he received the last evidence on the state constitutional claims from all sides.