As Bartlett citizens got an update this week on the move by it and the five other suburban towns and cities in Shelby County to form their own school systems, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald fielded a pointed question with an interesting answer.
Why would McDonald and other suburban leaders be negotiating with the Shelby County Commission at this point, with the passage of a state law earlier this year that took care of the issue of forming such school systems?
McDonald’s answer suggests that the suburban leaders and County Commission members all have a motive to continue private talks at least for now. And those talks may center first on the transfer or use of school buildings in the suburban towns and cities. Also on the table could be the lingering legal claim in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee by the County Commission that suburban school districts would racially “resegregate” public schools across the county and violate the U.S. Constitution.
“My response to that was yes, we probably could go to Nashville, get legislation and get the building. But if we can get this case settled including something with the 14th Amendment tied to it, it saves us a lot of money and headaches in the future,” McDonald said the day after the Tuesday evening public meeting. “That is one reason for us to still be at the table, is there are some who want us to pay more than we’re already paying for the schools and we’re wanting to not have to spend the money as taxpayers for the lawyers to take this all the way to the Supreme Court on the 14th Amendment.”
Asked if there are private talks underway on the specific idea of the suburbs paying some amount for schools in return for the commission dropping the “equal protection” claim and effectively ending the federal case, McDonald said, “I can’t comment on that right now. There are negotiations going on, but I can’t comment on the specifics of them.”
In earlier settlement talks dating back to 2011, all sides in the court case agreed to not publicly discuss specific terms of such talks even though they would acknowledge talks in general were underway.
And negotiations are underway with attorneys for the County Commission meeting with Millington leaders this week and scheduled to meet with Bartlett leaders next week, according to McDonald.
Shelby County Commissioners huddled privately with their attorneys in the federal lawsuit for about an hour Monday after their regularly scheduled public meeting. Attorney Lori Patterson would not discuss specifics and advised her clients not to talk about what was discussed either.
Meanwhile, all sides were to file briefs with U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays by the end of Friday on what issues remain in the suburban school districts’ part of the case for him to decide. That includes positions on which issues have been rendered moot by this year’s state law that lifted the statewide ban on establishing such municipal school districts.
The legislature acted and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law after Mays ruled in late 2012 that another law passed in Nashville in 2012 on the ground rules for establishing such districts violated the Tennessee Constitution because it applied only to Shelby County.
“What if somebody asks for an extension?” McDonald said of the Friday filing deadline in federal court. “There clearly are negotiations. So, if you’re the other side maybe you go to the judge and say before we do that let us finish talking to all of these cities.”
As of press time Thursday, there were no filings from any side on the specific points Mays wants to hear about from all sides.