Mays to Consider 13-Member School Board

By Bill Dries

After some time out of the public eye, the schools consolidation court case goes back before federal Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays Tuesday, April 16, for a hearing on the plan to change the structure of the countywide school board.

The commission approved a resolution in March asking Mays to accept a set of district lines for a 13-member countywide school board effective Sept. 1. That is when the 23-member school board is otherwise scheduled to go to a seven-member body under terms of the consent decree all sides agreed to in 2011.

But the same consent decree gives the commission the permission to go up to 13 members provided Mays approves it and the new district lines.

If Mays approves the plan at Tuesday’s hearing or in a later written ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, the commission would appoint six new members to the board who take office Sept. 1 to serve a year until winners from the August 2014 school board elections take office.

Mays is expected to hear at some point from Rick Masson, the special master he appointed in March to get the merger process moving at a faster pace than it has to date.

Mays has already heard from attorneys for the school board and suburban leaders who each urged him to delay a move to a 13-member school board until voters decide in 2014 who should occupy the six new seats. The state of Tennessee and the city of Memphis have taken no position.

School board attorney Valerie Speakman wrote for the board that “none of the parties could have known the full extent to which having a large school board could have slowed the decision making regarding issues critical to the transfer of administration.”

But the County Commission contends the consent decree agreed to by all parties means the move shouldn’t be a surprise. And commission attorneys in the school case say the change comes after the schools merger takes effect.

The commission’s position has been that having the same set of district lines as the County Commission makes the school board easier to redistrict once every 10 years based on the U.S. Census taken once a decade. The old Memphis City Schools board used the same set of district lines for its seven districts as the Memphis City Council.

But the school board district lines proposed by the commission are not an exact match of the single-member district lines the commission uses for the 2014 county elections. The school board districts proposed are slightly different in order to avoid pairing two incumbents in each of two school board districts.

County Commission attorney Lori H. Patterson contends the school board and suburban leaders don’t present “any evidence or even a convincing argument that a 13-member board will hinder rather than aid in the school board’s decision-making functions.”

“This is because no such evidence exists,” she added, concluding the concerns raised by the school board and suburban leaders “are merely political in nature and have no basis in either fact or law.”