Filings Represent Numerous Possibilities for Schools Case

By Bill Dries

All six population maps for Carroll and Gibson counties are on file. And Memphis federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays has all of the material he needs to make a critical ruling on the future of municipal school districts in Shelby County.

Houston High School in Germantown is one of the Shelby County Schools that would be affected by a ruling from Memphis federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on the formation of municipal school districts in suburban towns and cities, including Germantown.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The deadline for the maps and “proposed findings of fact” – what each side would propose should be included in Mays’ ruling – was Thursday, Oct. 4.

Mays has not said when he is likely to rule. He’s given very little indication about what he considers to be relevant and irrelevant in the three days of hearings he held last month as well as numerous conferences with the attorneys.

His ruling will be on the questions of whether state laws governing the establishment of the suburban school districts are in line with the Tennessee Constitution or violate it. The specific parts of the constitution at the center of this part of the case are those that define what is a general state law and what is a private act.

But his decision on that point could trigger a number of possible rulings on other questions.

Attorneys for the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County specifically say that none of the municipalities have formed municipal school districts yet. Each community defines the referendum elections held in August and the coming school board elections on the Nov. 6 ballot as “preliminary steps” toward creating such school systems.

The distinction, if agreed to by Mays, could be important if his ruling overturns the state laws passed this year that effectively moved up the ability of the suburban leaders to hold the referendums.

The Tennessee Attorney General’s office had said in a March legal opinion that the 2011 law on forming municipal school districts did not permit referendums or any other step toward forming a municipal school district until the merger of Memphis city and Shelby County schools takes place in August.

Mays, in his ruling, could choose to put that opinion to the test if he cancels out the 2012 state laws.

Even if the statute could only apply now to Shelby County, attorneys for the state argue that doesn’t mean it violates the state constitution “when the statute is written so that other counties may subsequently take action to bring them under its coverage.” They cite a 1974 Tennessee Supreme Court case involving Nashville’s metro government.

There are eight counties in Tennessee including Shelby with school districts that are special school districts.

But attorneys for the Shelby County Commission contend the state laws passed in 2011 and 2012 on the formation of municipal school districts are rules that only apply to the merger of the Memphis City Schools special school district with the Shelby County Schools system. It is that merger, which Mays upheld last year, that triggers the option of forming municipal school districts when the special school district is 100 percent of the size of the county school system it will merge with.

Attorneys for the commission argue it is so unlikely as to be virtually impossible for the municipal school acts to ever apply to Henry, Wilson, Williamson, Scott or Marion counties.

That leaves Carroll and Gibson counties, which became the focal point of the three days of trial testimony and arguments Mays heard in September. Both counties also dominate the proposed findings of fact submitted by each side.

The County Commission’s legal counsel argues Carroll County will never meet the requirements for municipal school districts of at least 1,500 students. And attorneys for the commission argue Gibson County doesn’t have a county school system that the Milan special school district could merge with. No county school system means no county schools superintendent and such a superintendent is required to participate in the consolidation planning commission required by state law for such a merger.

Attorneys for the state of Tennessee in their brief say that a county school system would be formed for purposes of a merger and that a nonexistent county school system with no students would increase in size by 100 percent with a merger with any of the special school districts in Gibson County.

The county school system in Carroll County had two students in the 2010-2011 school year, according to the state filing, and each of the six special school districts there have more than four students meaning a merged school system would be 100 percent larger than the present county school system.

The city of McKenzie, in Carroll County, has in its city charter the ability to operate a municipal school system and it has a school-age population of 1,218, which is below the 1,500 threshold required for such a school district in the most recent legislation.