County Commission Debates Schools Merger

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Commissioners marked the two-year anniversary Monday, Feb. 11, of the federal lawsuit over schools consolidation and municipal school districts with a running debate across several items about the upcoming schools merger.

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker pushed unsuccessfully to add a vote Monday on a resolution instructing the county’s attorneys to drop the commission lawsuit opposing municipal schools district laws.

“This is a time … when the mistakes of consolidation are magnified,” Bunker said.

Although the attempt to suspend the rules to add the item was defeated, Bunker said he will introduce the item in committee sessions next week with an eye toward getting it on the commission’s Feb. 25 agenda.

Before Monday’s commission meeting, leaders of municipal schools district groups in Germantown, Collierville and Bartlett called on the commission to drop its part of the federal court lawsuit.

The groups cited tentative budget plans that include laying off 377 to 443 school teachers and other staff if the merged school district moves to larger teacher-pupil ratios and spreading teaching assistants and similar staff out over larger numbers of students.

It is those tentative budget figures that have stoked the concerns of county schools parents in the last week at a series of three public hearings.

“Nobody wants to see school level cuts,” said Ken Hoover, one of those parents and a leader of the group My Germantown Schools.

“There’s only one path that prevents school level cuts and that is to open the door to municipal school districts.”

–Ken Hoover
My Germantown Schools

“There’s only one path that prevents school level cuts and that is to open the door to municipal school districts,” Hoover said. “Remove the barricades, lay down the lawsuit, open the path for municipal schools and permit the maintenance … of the level of services being delivered in the county today.”

The call by Hoover and the leaders of Better Bartlett Schools and Citizens of Collierville garnered the backing of Bunker as well as Commissioners Terry Roland, Chris Thomas and Steve Basar.

Commissioner Sidney Chism watched the Monday press conference outside commission chambers and had a different opinion.

“Why would I or any other commissioner up there say to the voting public that we are not going to abide by the law or the constitution,” Chism asked.

“The judge said we were right,” Chism said referring to last year’s ruling by Memphis federal Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays that stopped and voided all moves to suburban municipal school districts.

Still pending before Mays is a decision on two other state laws that permit the creation of the separate school districts once the city and county schools merger takes place in August.

“I’m not thinking about backing off the lawsuit and disenfranchising the masses of the people in Memphis and Shelby County,” Chism said. “They are afraid, in my opinion, that the judge is going to rule against them on the second part of this lawsuit.”

Mays may be about to rule on the two remaining state laws. Last week, the commission and suburban mayors each confirmed that they have called off out-of-court negotiations aimed at a settlement.

Meanwhile, the commission sent back to committee a resolution to transfer $300,000 from the commission’s contingency fund to pay anticipated legal fees from the ongoing schools lawsuit in federal court.

“We are probably going to get our municipal school districts,” Roland said. “It’s time to start talking common sense. The fight’s over.”

Commissioner Steve Mulroy said legal expenses for the suburban towns and cities and county school board have been “far greater” than the commission’s expenses.

County Commission chairman Mike Ritz said he will not instruct the commission’s outside counsel to attend the committee session next week.

“I’m not planning on asking the attorneys to show up and be grilled,” he said. “That will not happen.”

The commission also voted Monday to exempt Memphis City Schools teachers hired by the school system before Sept. 1, 1986, from a county charter residency requirement that requires them to live within Shelby County.

The 1986 date is when the county charter residency requirement that applies to Shelby County Schools teachers took effect.

The commission also approved on the first of three readings Monday a five-year “grace period” for others living outside the county and hired after Sept. 1, 1986, to move within the county.