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VOL. 127 | NO. 191 | Monday, October 1, 2012

Schools Case Stretches Into 2013

By Bill Dries

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By his count, Memphis federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays is on his fourth third-party motion in a year-and-a-half-old court case involving the reformation of public education in Shelby County.

It began as a lawsuit filed by Shelby County Schools in February 2011 to stop the next month’s citywide referendum on a schools merger and plans by the Shelby County Commission to appoint a new countywide school board. The case is now about the reaction to that coming merger – the establishment of municipal school districts in the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County.

Mays will have six population maps from Carroll and Gibson counties by Thursday, Oct. 4, that will give him all of the material all sides in the case believe he needs to decide one part of the municipal school districts question.

That is a claim by the Shelby County Commission that the Tennessee laws enacted by the Tennessee Legislature in 2011 and 2012 on municipal school districts violate the Tennessee Constitution. The County Commission claims the laws on municipal school districts were written to apply only to Shelby County and violate standards in the state constitution for general laws.

Attorneys for the suburbs argued in the most detailed and complex chapter of the case so far that the laws could “reasonably” be applied to other counties and their school systems.

Mays heard all of the proof in that part of the case over three days last month.

The second part of the federal court case on municipal school districts will go to trial Jan. 3, according to a new roadmap for the other part of the case Mays and the attorneys worked out Thursday, Sept. 27, in his courtroom.

That part deals with claims by the Shelby County Commission that the establishment of the municipal school districts is a violation of the U.S. Constitution because the suburban school districts would, in part, promote racial segregation of the county’s school-age population.

Suburban leaders have vocally denied the claim in court and out of court.

The non-jury trial was originally to go to trial Nov. 6. But when arguments and motions on the Tennessee constitutional issues went long earlier in September, Mays quickly realized the November trial date on the federal issues wasn’t possible.

“It’s like a family reunion,” Mays said last week as he took the bench. “Who brought the turkey?”

Later he said the coming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays aren’t a barrier to hearing the case as far as he is concerned.

“Bring the kids and really celebrate,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me to try it Christmas week. I’ve actually tried one on Christmas day.”

But the trial date ultimately got pushed into January as attorneys contemplated the pre-trial preparations needed in advance of a trial that Mays has said several times is the equivalent in complexity to a 1960s- and 1970s-era schools desegregation case.

The claim of racial segregation comes with numerous expert witnesses to be deposed and who might also testify during a hearing both sides estimate will take eight to 10 days.

Mays has given no indication when he might rule on the first or the second parts of the case.

Shelby County’s two public school systems merge in August 2013. At the start of the same school year, suburban leaders plan to open their municipal school districts.

As the attorneys on all sides are filing motions, briefs and responses, and getting discovery material, voters in the six suburban communities will be electing municipal school boards on the Nov. 6 ballot. And the boards will then move to appoint superintendents for each of the school districts by the end of 2012.

Meanwhile, the countywide school board is about to start debating and voting on 172 recommendations from the consolidation planning commission on the transition to the merger and the structure of the school system and its operations from the merger date moving forward.

Those directly involved in the separate planning efforts are moving ahead assuming they are working toward an August 2013 opening. But leaders of both efforts are acutely aware that Mays’ ruling on both parts of the current third-party motions will figure prominently in what actually happens at the start of the next school year.

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