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VOL. 127 | NO. 179 | Thursday, September 13, 2012

Board Looks to ‘Inconvenient Circumstances’

By Bill Dries

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As Bartlett aldermen approved additional legal expenses Tuesday, Sept. 11, in the Memphis federal court fight over municipal school districts, countywide school board members elected in the Aug. 2 elections and two new board members appointed Monday by the Shelby County Commission took their oaths of office.


The seven elected members make up the school board that will remain in office in August 2013 after Shelby County’s two public school systems are merged.

The merger date is when the seven seats on the former Shelby County Schools board and the nine seats on the former Memphis City Schools board are phased out.

“We are in the midst of uncomfortable and inconvenient circumstances,” school board member Reginald Porter Jr. said after taking the oath of office.

Porter is among the seven board members who have served almost a year after their appointment in October 2011 by the Shelby County Commission. They joined the members of the two former school boards in a 23-member body.

School board member Kevin Woods, another of the 2011 appointees who won election in August in a race against fellow board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. of the old city schools board, likened it to “standing in the middle of two worlds.”

Whalum has filed a pending lawsuit in Shelby County Chancery Court contesting Woods 108-vote victory in the election.

In Tuesday evening’s vote in Bartlett, the Board of Alderman approved paying additional legal fees to the Burch Porter & Johnson PLLC law firm. Collierville alderman also approved Monday evening additional city funding for the legal bills.

Collierville and Bartlett leaders had set a $100,000 limit initially on the legal fees. Germantown officials did not set a limit on the spending.

Attorneys for the law firm have mounted an aggressive defense of the state law passed in 2011 and 2012 in Nashville that set the ground rules for forming municipal school districts as well as the merger.

Shelby County Commissioners, represented by attorneys with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, claim the laws on the municipal school districts violate the Tennessee Constitution because they were written to apply only to Shelby County.

Attorneys for the two firms clashed specifically on whether the municipal school district provisions apply only to Shelby County earlier this month at the end of a two-day evidentiary hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays. He has scheduled a third day of testimony and other evidence for Sept. 20 on the specific issue.

Friday is the deadline for filings before the third day of the hearing.

The countywide school board, meanwhile, meets after its Tuesday, Sept. 18, work session to choose a chairman and vice chairman for the next year.

Billy Orgel, another one of the County Commission appointees to the body, is the current chairman. He won election in August, running unopposed in the nonpartisan elections.

Orgel said Tuesday that he didn’t specifically seek the chairmanship last October and isn’t specifically seeking re-election for another year in the post.

“That’s up to the 23 members, who they choose to serve. I enjoyed my year of service,” Orgel said. “It’s been an honor to be the chairman the first year of the unified school board. Whether I’m chairman or not, I hope to make an impact as a board member.”

Orgel has also referred to himself as part of a “centrist” group of 12 or so school board members. And a dozen votes is a majority on the body.

But holding a majority so far has depended on the specific issue facing the board. There was a majority to vote against extending the contract of Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash beyond the merger date. There wasn’t a majority last month to approve a resolution that would have left Cash in place for now but put Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken in charge of all merger-related administrative decisions up to and beyond the merger date.

Orgel points to the working group of school administrators from both systems who are reviewing merger and structural recommendations from the consolidation planning commission.

“I think we’re close,” Orgel said of board votes to come on what amounts to a second layer of recommendations to come from the working group.

“We’ve got to get going on what our countywide payroll system is going to look like. I think we need to look at the outsourcing,” he added, referring to controversial planning commission recommendations on outsourcing school custodial and transportation services. “And then I think we’re going to have to get down and look at the school closure issue. … That involves a lot of input from the community.”

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