Mays’ Ruling to Impact Future Schools Talks

By Bill Dries

The political stakes were high for some on the Shelby County Commission.

The majority on the body who voted to contest in court the creation of municipal school districts in Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities was just as intent on playing a role in who went on the countywide school board a month into the first school year of the merger.

Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash, left, and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken, had each resigned by the effective date of the schools merger. But both heavily influenced the changes in local education that will continue years into the merger.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

But the U.S. District Court judge overseeing the multipart lawsuit ruled Wednesday, Aug. 7, that an automatic expansion of a school board that was supposed to slim down next month from 23 members to seven members would unnecessarily complicate the merger at a critical period.

Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays also described the commission’s position in the specific legal issue as threatening “to impede the purpose of the consent decree.”

“Increasing the number of school board members is an ancillary feature of the decree; effectively combining two school systems with some 150,000 students does not hinge on the size of the school board,” Mays added. “Expanding the school board by appointing six unelected members at a critical time creates uncertainty and potentially undermines the legitimacy of the school board’s decision making.”

Mays also wrote in Wednesday’s ruling, “Appointing six additional members would unnecessarily dilute the school board’s responsiveness to the voters of Shelby County.”

Instead Mays ruled the school board will expand to 13 members when the winners of the six new seats in the August 2014 county general elections take office on Sept. 1, 2014.

There will be no special election before then and no immediate appointments sought by the majority on the commission in the hard-fought court case.

In the next year, the seven-member countywide school board is expected to begin talks with the school boards that each of the six suburban communities plan to elect in November. And those talks will include trying to come to some agreement on the use of school buildings within the borders of those communities for their separate school systems. There is also the issue of what happens to students in unincorporated Shelby County in the possible move to seven school systems in Shelby County starting with the 2014-2015 school year.

The tenor of talks on both of those issues would have been affected in some way by a school board with six new members appointed by the Shelby County Commission.

The court case in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee began in early 2011, with the commission’s move to appoint members to a countywide school board as one of several critical legal issues.

It was among the factors that prompted leaders of the old Shelby County Schools system to file a federal lawsuit that involved every other party connected to the then-possible schools merger as plaintiffs and/or counterclaimants.

Mays himself asked the commission to hold off on the appointments while he dealt with the first issue – Shelby County Schools’ challenge of the March 2011 citywide referendum on the merger. Then-commission chairman Sidney Chism agreed. Mays ruled the referendum was valid and moved to personally mediating the negotiations that led to the settlement agreement.

With the agreement, a 23-member board was seated in October 2011, with the commission appointing seven members, each representing districts that covered the entire county. The nine members of the old Memphis City Schools board and the seven members of the old Shelby County Schools board joined them on the transitional board.

Those 16 “legacy” members go off the countywide board effective next month, leaving the seven members who were elected to the countywide district seats in August 2012.

Included in the agreement was the option for the commission to set new district lines and expand the school board to 13 district positions, with Mays having final approval of the expansion, including the district lines.

The commission, through its attorneys, argued in court that it never would have agreed to other terms in the settlement if it didn’t think it had the power to appoint the six new members.

But at the outset of hearings on the issue, Mays was clear that the settlement never said how the new positions were to be filled.

Attorneys for the countywide school system and the suburban leaders did not formally contest the expansion to 13 members. They instead opposed an expansion through appointments made by the commission.

Mays sided with them in Wednesday’s ruling and went further than his earlier declaration on what was and was not in the settlement or consent decree in 2011.

The ruling Wednesday says appointments to the six new seats “is not the means of selection contemplated in the consent decree.”

“The Shelby County Commission’s proposed method does not capture the highly unusual circumstances here,” he added. “The issue here, unlike the cases relied on by the Shelby County Commission, is not the appointment of officials to vacancies created in the ordinary course of government; it is the appointment of members to fill commission-created positions on a newly constituted board, resulting in a situation in which some voters are left without elected representation during a time of critical public importance.”