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VOL. 127 | NO. 175 | Friday, September 7, 2012

Schools Fight Looks to Milan System

By Bill Dries

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The date to a city-county schools merger in Shelby County is less than a year away and the six suburban towns and cities in the county are preparing for Nov. 6 school board elections for their municipal school districts.


Countywide school board members are still trying to come up with a process for selecting a merger superintendent. And there is the real possibility the municipal school districts boards could have their superintendents picked first. The Shelby County Commission on Monday, Sept. 10, will appoint two new members to the countywide school board for one-year terms following countywide school board races on the Aug. 2 ballot.


And the court fight that will affect all of that is building critical mass over how to count the school-age population in the Gibson County town of Milan.

A group of more than a dozen attorneys representing five sides packed hours of technical demographic research and arguments over the right statistical model to use in two days this week before U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

And much of the testimony dealt with whether the state laws passed in 2011 and 2012 could apply to forming municipal school districts anywhere else in the state other than Shelby County.

That is what makes Milan, its urban growth area and Gibson County such a contested point.

Attorneys for the six suburban towns and cities called Carolyn Anderson of Nashville Wednesday, Sept. 5, as what was supposed to be a last witness. Anderson is the Geographic Information Systems specialist for the Tennessee Legislature. She makes maps using computer programs that interpret data.

In this case, it was a map of the school-age population in Gibson County that turned what was expected to be five minutes on the witness stand into an all-afternoon affair that will continue Sept. 20.

The U.S. Census data by census tract that Anderson used showed Milan already has enough school-age population to meet the 1,500-student threshold to form a municipal school district. And the school-age population for Milan would grow if Milan’s urban growth area is included.

Like Memphis City Schools, Milan schools are a special school district. Unlike Shelby County, Gibson County has no county school system.

Attorneys for the Shelby County suburbs argue Gibson County is a place where the state law on municipal school districts could apply.

Countywide school board member Martavius Jones disagrees and cites the lack of county school system the Milan special school district could surrender its charter to as Memphis City Schools did.

“The basic math tells us if you multiply by zero or divide by zero, the result is zero,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer but I would present the argument that if you don’t have a county school board there, then you don’t have an argument.”

State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville, the Norris in the Norris-Todd law, called that specific argument “a red herring.”

“The law is clear,” Norris said of the required formation of a countywide school district. “They have to.”

A Tennessee attorney general’s legal opinion has held Gibson County would have to form a county school system if Milan Schools surrendered its special school district charter on the way to forming a municipal school district.

And the urban growth area that keeps Milan’s school-age population growing is very real and a fit for the formation of a municipal school district outside Shelby County, Norris added.

“They are clearly not theoretical,” he said of the areas that show where the city will annex in the future. “They are actual and required by law.”

Attorneys for the commission as well as the Memphis City Council objected to Anderson’s map saying she selectively used data.

Mays is hearing evidence on whether the municipal schools district laws violate or comply with the Tennessee Constitution.

The Shelby County Commission claims that the laws apply only to the county but were passed as general laws when they should have been passed as a private act. Private acts require the approval of a local legislative body or passage in a local referendum.

Other claims of violations of the U.S. Constitution would be heard at a later date or not at all if Mays rules the state laws are void under the Tennessee Constitution.

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