Commission Debates Schools Court Moves, Ends Redistricting Case

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Commissioners have dropped their appeal in the Chancery Court lawsuit over redistricting and ended the protracted political dispute.

But the commission also voted Monday, Oct. 8, to replenish its contingency fund with $800,000 for the legal fees in the continuing federal lawsuit over municipal school districts.

The commission’s action in the federal lawsuit came as attorneys for the commission filed new motions in the case. The filings are in advance of the upcoming January hearing on its claim that the formation of the municipal school districts amounts to an illegal resegregation of public education in Shelby County.

In the filing of an amended third party complaint, the commission makes its case for what it says is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. In making that case, the attorneys raise the possibility that if the court agrees the commission would be funding unconstitutional school systems and could be sued, in effect, after winning the court argument.

Some on the commission, notably commissioner Terry Roland, took it to be an attempt to stop funding of the municipal school districts now.

County Commission chairman Mike Ritz said it is not.

“It’s not. What we are asking for is direction from the court as to whether or not we should fund municipal schools,” Ritz said. “If we fund municipal schools and they are later found to be segregated, we are liable. … So we do not want to make a mistake and fund a segregated school system. We’re asking the court to decide if the municipal school districts are segregated. We can’t refuse funding.”

Meanwhile, the commission voted 8-5 to drop its appeal of the June ruling by Chancellor Arnold Goldin in favor of a new set of district lines that make the five-district 13-member commission a body of 13 single-member districts with the 2014 elections.

Goldin made the ruling after the commission could not get the nine vote majority required to pass the plan or another plan on third and final reading. The nine-vote majority required by the Shelby County Charter since 1993 is not required in state law. But Goldin said his ruling was limited to the redistricting issue.

The commission appealed fearing the nine-vote requirement in the charter is susceptible to further legal challenge by others. But the commission with Monday’s vote opted to give up the appeal, fearing an appeals court judge might take on the charter provision anyway.

The commission emptied its contingency fund of the remaining $171,490 to pay legal fees from the ongoing federal court case that now involves the establishment of municipal school districts. And the commission voted to replenish the contingency fund for legal fees with another $800,000 from the county government’s estimated fund balance.

The commission also voted to take up a possible audit of the legal bills in its audit committee.

The transfer and move to audit committee drew vocal debate from a commission in which a majority voted to contest the state laws governing the formation of municipal school districts. The third party motion is part of the federal court case that began in August 2011 as a challenge by the county school board of the upcoming merger of city and county school systems.

In other action, the commission voted down an ordinance on the first of three readings proposed by Ritz that would have established procedures for specific commission approval of money used by elected officials for parties, “employee appreciation events and gifts” for their employees. Ritz said the measure was a reaction to a Christmas party thrown by former General Sessions Court Clerk Otis Jackson for his office staff that was paid for from the office budget. But other commissioners questioned whether the specific approval was micromanaging elected officials.

The commission also appointed Clay Perry as the new chief administrator of the commission, responsible for the commission’s office staff and day-to-day affairs of running the commission office. Perry had been deputy administrator under Steve Summerall who retired earlier this year. Perry had been acting administrator since Summerall’s retirement.