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VOL. 128 | NO. 29 | Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Suburban Districts Back in Federal Court

By Bill Dries

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The faded red kick ball that is the issue of metropolitan school districts in the Shelby County suburbs is now back in Memphis federal court after about two-and-a-half months of private mediation talks.


The ball needs a bit of air and has a lot of scuff marks and shoe prints on it. But it didn’t get kicked around a whole lot in the talks that began late last year.


Attorneys for the Shelby County Commission and the mayors of Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities did some talking. But the commissioners and mayors themselves didn’t have that much direct contact.

On the table was the idea of six separate sets of suburban charter schools.

Last week, each of the two sides – without knowing it – reached the same conclusion at about the same time.

And the attorneys again broke the news to each side that the other was ready to tell Memphis federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays that there would be no agreement.

“Just call the judge and tell him to rule and that’s what we did,” was how County Commission chairman Mike Ritz put the message he gave the commission’s attorneys.

What Mays would rule on is the fate of two standing state laws that set the ground rules for forming municipal school districts.

Last year, Mays ruled the state law that permitted the suburban towns and cities to begin taking steps immediately toward formation of the separate school districts violated the Tennessee Constitution.

Two other laws permitting the formation of such districts starting after the August start of the schools merger are still in effect pending a ruling from Mays on the County Commission’s challenge of them as well.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald agreed the talks are over from the perspective of the suburban mayors. But he said he wasn’t sure exactly how a similar request from the attorneys for the suburbs to Mays would be worded.

“I’m not sure how they will approach that,” McDonald said. “I certainly think they would let him know that the mediation has broken down and that if he will, that he should go ahead probably and rule. But I don’t know exactly how they are going to word that.”

The wording of such a request is important because it is not a given that Mays will now set about ruling on the remaining municipal school districts legislation.

Mays could try his hand at court-ordered mediation as he did in the first part of the court case that was filed two years ago Monday, Feb. 11, by the Shelby County Schools system.

Mays was the mediator in the talks that resulted in the settlement that led to the merger of the schools and the establishment of the current 23-member school board as well as much of the process for planning for the merger.

He attempted mediation on the second part of the schools case, the municipal school districts laws. But his attempts failed on that count and he ruled on the first of the three laws.

Ritz said the terms he put on the table in behalf of the County Commission at the outset of the talks were that there would be a 10-year agreement between each suburban town or city and the Shelby County Commission.

The terms included in that agreement would have been that at least 5 percent of the spots in each suburban charter school would be open to countywide enrollment. Each school’s staff and charter board would reflect the racial makeup of that particular school and the set of schools’ student body, respectively.

No public school buildings would be transferred for free but the ultimate price would be up to the countywide school board.

There was also a provision that if the suburban governments funded their charter schools at a higher per student level than the countywide school system, the suburban government would have to give an equal amount of funding to the countywide school system.

“If Germantown decided to give the eight charter schools in Germantown an extra $100,000, they would have to give another $100,000 to the unified school district,” Ritz said.

McDonald said Ritz had broken a confidentiality agreement in talking about terms that he would not confirm or deny.

“They wanted to talk about things that we should be negotiating with the school board about and not with the County Commission,” McDonald said. “They wanted to bind us to some situations before we even had a chance to negotiate with the school system about either a charter school program or a municipal school district and how buildings would be done. … That’s just not acceptable.”

The school board did not participate in the private talks. The school board is not a party in the federal lawsuit.

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