Schools Case Moving Under Radar

By Bill Dries

With less than a month to the opening of the first year of the consolidated school system, much of the focus has shifted to the classroom and away from the system, the school board and even the ongoing federal court case over the merger.

While much of the attention in the schools merger has shifted to the classroom less than a month from the Aug. 5 opening of the consolidated district, there is still movement in the federal court case over the merger as well as the pending formation of municipal districts.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

But the 23-member school board is less than two months from slimming down to either seven or 13 members depending on a pending court ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

The issue before Mays is whether the Shelby County Commission can appoint six new members to a board that will already include the seven members elected in 2012. The commission has approved a set of new district lines for the 13-member body and submitted the new district plan to Mays for his approval as well.

The 2011 settlement among all sides in the first part of the multi-part case included an agreement that the school board would start in October 2011 as a 23-member body – all nine of the former Memphis City Schools board members, all seven of the former Shelby County Schools board members and seven new board members appointed by the County Commission from seven districts covering all of Shelby County. Those seven seats were up for election in 2012.

The agreement also set out that the legacy city schools and county schools board positions would go out of existence at the end of August leaving just the seven countywide school board members.

But the settlement also stipulated that the County Commission had the option of expanding the board to 13 members.

Even though he hasn’t ruled on the case, Mays said early in the hearings that he saw nothing in the 2011 settlement that indicated the commission would have the power to appoint those new school board positions. The other options could include holding special school board elections for them or waiting to fill them until the regularly scheduled 2014 county general elections.

Meanwhile, school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. said last month that he had attended his last board meeting, at least until the outcome of another pending civil court case in state court.

Whalum had said long before the June school board session that unless he was elected to the new smaller school board that emerges Sept. 1, he saw no point in continuing to serve on the board once the merger became official with the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

Whalum ran for a seat on the school board that remains starting Sept. 1. But he lost in the certified vote count to Kevin Woods.

However, Whalum contested the election results in Shelby County Chancery Court and all sides in the lawsuit are awaiting a written decision by Chancellor Kenny Armstrong.

The legal team representing the suburban towns and cities in the federal court case is changing as Tom Cates of Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC leaves as lead counsel for the suburban leaders. Cates is also leaving in his role as city attorney for Germantown and Collierville.

Nathan Bicks, also of Burch, Porter & Johnson, becomes lead counsel in a case that still includes a claim by the Shelby County Commission that the suburban municipal school districts would racially resegregate public education in Shelby County and violate the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.

A newer part of the federal lawsuit is off the table at least for now.

The Memphis Education Association had filed in May seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the school system’s plan for hiring teachers based on factors other than seniority. The other factors included student achievement and performance as well as a “mutual consent” plan in which a principal and teacher agreed on the teacher being assigned to a certain school.

The teachers union claimed the plan violated a requirement in state law that teachers would not lose rights and benefits in the merger.

But Monday, attorneys for the union withdrew the request leaving open the option of filing it again.

Attorneys for the school system contended in earlier filings that the issue was not ripe because the school system had not completed its hiring of teachers for the school year that begins Aug. 5.