Schools Talks to Resume in Private

By Bill Dries

Private talks aimed at settling the federal lawsuit over municipal school districts are expected to resume with the end of the holiday season.

All sides in the legal matter had met behind closed doors at least twice after U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled in late November that all moves taken in 2012 toward forming municipal school districts were void. He ruled the 2012 state law allowing leaders in Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities to move ahead with their plans immediately violated the Tennessee Constitution.

The talks among the various parties in the lawsuit began after that ruling. Mays has not yet ruled on two other state laws allowing and governing the creation of municipal school districts once the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems begins in August.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the state of Tennessee said in a court filing that “recent talks have showed progress.”

The description is included in a Dec. 27 filing by the state seeking to delay the time it has to appeal a decision by a magistrate judge on another part of the complex lawsuit.

“An appeal of the magistrate’s decision to the district judge … at this stage could potentially interfere with those discussions,” wrote the attorneys with the Tennessee Attorney General’s office including Deputy Attorney General Kevin Steiling.

That is as specific as any of the parties involved in the talks have been.

Mays tried unsuccessfully to mediate a settlement before his November ruling. He is not believed to be involved in the current mediation efforts. Nor is Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman who was suggested as a mediator by state Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.

The state’s characterization of the talks came in response to a move by attorneys for the Shelby County Commission to get the emails and other correspondence of state legislators and their constituents in 2011 and 2012 dealing with passage of the laws on municipal school districts.

The commission’s attorneys are seeking the correspondence as part of the third part of the court case in which the commission is claiming the municipal school districts would racially resegregate public schools in Shelby County and violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Magistrate Judge Charmiane Claxton approved the commission’s motion to compel the state to provide the correspondence after Mays referred the matter to her. The state has the option of appealing her decision to Mays.

But by pushing back the deadline for a possible appeal to Mays, the state seems to be saying another step toward a hearing of the federal constitutional claim might scuttle the attempts to settle and stop the litigation before the case gets to those claims.

Mays has said in court that the federal equal protection claim would amount to a schools desegregation case from the 1960s or 1970s in its scope. It would be more complex and involve expert witnesses on racial demographics as well as the intent of legislators and broader questions about past public education policy locally as well as statewide.

Mays has also offered no clues to the parties in the lawsuit about which way he might rule on the two remaining state laws governing municipal school districts.

After Mays’ November ruling but before the first of the mediation sessions that followed it began, Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz said he was certain the suburban leaders would try to find a way to establish school districts separate from the consolidated school system as what would amount to clusters of charter schools.

Since the first private meeting, no one involved has offered any word on specific options being discussed.

The talks do not involve the countywide school board, which is not a party in the lawsuit as an entity. Attorneys for the suburban leaders invited school board chairman Billy Orgel to participate. Orgel said he and the board are willing to meet with the parties in the lawsuit but that they might do so later.