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VOL. 6 | NO. 7 | Saturday, February 9, 2013

Suburban School Talks End

By Bill Dries

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Private talks between the Shelby County Commission and the county’s six suburban mayors on suburban school districts have ended, according to Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz and Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald.

Ritz said he has instructed the commission's attorneys in the Memphis federal court schools case to tell Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays that talks have ended and Mays should rule on the remaining issues in the case that was filed two years ago Monday.

“Just call the judge and tell him to rule, and that’s what we did,” Ritz said Friday, Feb. 8, in the late afternoon. “It happened a couple of hours ago.”

McDonald said he wasn’t sure how a similar request from the suburbs' attorneys would be worded.

“I’m not sure how they will approach that,” McDonald said in a separate conversation minutes later. “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.”

Ritz confirmed both sides in the attempt at an out-of court settlement talked for several months primarily about the establishment of what amounted to a charter school district in each of Memphis' six suburban towns and cities.

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

According to both, the terms required the suburbs to come to agreements with the Shelby County Commission, and then agreements for the operation of charter school districts with the countywide school board.

“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. They wanted to set the guidelines before we even had the discussion with them. That’s just not acceptable.”

The school board did not participate in the private talks, which began late last year, and is not a party in the federal lawsuit.

Ritz said the terms he put on the table for the county commission at the outset of the talks were that there would be 10-year agreements between the commission and each suburb.

The terms in that agreement would have been that at least five percent of the spots in each suburban charter school would be open to countywide enrollment, each school’s staff would reflect the racial makeup of that school, and the school board for the charters would reflect the racial makeup of the student body.

The financial terms were that no public school buildings would be transferred for free and that the countywide school board would negotiate with the suburbs around a general idea of “fair market value.”

Ritz also said the terms from the commission included a provision that if the suburban governments funded their charter schools at a per-student level greater than the combined county, state and federal funding for the countywide school system, the suburban government would have to give an equal amount of funding to the countywide 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. “Almost everything I just said, I said at the very first meeting to represent the County Commission’s position. As they got written down and, I think, as (suburban leaders) looked at them more carefully, I think their feet got cold.”

Ritz said late last month it appeared to him the suburban leaders were “hugely stalling” as they pursued charter schools legislation in Nashville.

“We made the decision that the talks were at a stalemate before we went to Nashville,” McDonald said.

“I don’t blame them,” Ritz said. “I think that’s the politics and the actual facts of what happened. That’s fine.”

The most immediate issue in the court case is the remaining state laws governing the formation of separate municipal school districts.

Last year, Mays ruled the state law that permitted the suburbs to begin immediate steps toward forming separate school districts violated the Tennessee Constitution.

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

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