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VOL. 128 | NO. 53 | Monday, March 18, 2013

County Commission Weighs School Merger Changes

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioners might discuss Monday, March 18, the idea of restructuring the countywide school board for a third time in the last year and a half.

But they are likely to delay action on a resolution that would create a 13-member school board effective Sept. 1 by appointing six new members to go with the seven existing members.

Those seven members elected in 2012 remain on the board Sept. 1 as the nine members of the old Memphis City Schools board and the seven members of the old Shelby County Schools board go off what is now a 23-member school board.

The commission meets at 1:30 p.m. at the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, 160 N. Main St.

The commission approved a set of seven districts in 2011 for the school board that cover the entire county. But if the commission expands the school board to 13 members, the expansion comes with a new set of district lines covering the entire county.

Commissioners on both sides of the geographic and political fault line separating Memphis from the rest of Shelby County had agreed early on with such an expansion.

But the premise then was that a 13-member school board would use the same district lines the commission will use when all 13 seats on the commission are up for election in 2014.

The set of district lines presented by County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz are “98 percent” the same, as characterized by Ritz in committee sessions last Wednesday.

But they aren’t an exact match because the plan made allowances to prevent incumbents Chris Caldwell and Teresa Jones from being in the same district as well as Billy Orgel and Kevin Woods from being in the same district.

“We used a scalpel rather than an ax,” said Josh Whitehead, planning director of the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Planning and Development.

OPD drew the altered district lines that put Woods and Caldwell just within the borders of different districts.

Shortening the elected term of office of an incumbent with new district lines comes with legal complications and questions that could send an exact match of County Commission districts into a state or federal courtroom.

A delay in Monday’s vote is likely because of other legal questions Ritz wants Shelby County Attorney Kelly Rayne and the commission’s attorneys in the schools merger federal court case to explore with U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

The consent decree setting the terms of the schools merger that Mays approved in 2011 also allowed for the possibility of a school board expansion.

But Mays indicated he would approve the terms of such an expansion as well as other terms of the decree. He did not specify whether the commission would have to pass a resolution or an ordinance to expand the school board.

The answer the attorneys get from Mays on that point could be central to whether the school board expansion is approved.

A resolution is one vote and takes a simple majority of the commission.

An ordinance is voted on three times or on three readings. And it must pass with a nine-vote two-thirds majority on third and final reading.

The commission could never get nine votes for its own redistricting plan in 2011 and into 2012. Chancellor Arnold Goldin had to rule, putting in place the conversion of the commission to 13 single-member districts favored by a simple majority on the commission.

Some commissioners suggested last week they might be able to support a 13-member school board with the exact same boundaries as the County Commission. In that scenario, the commission would not appoint six new members to start Sept. 1. All 13 positions would instead be filled for the first time by voters in the August 2014 county general election.

Meanwhile, the commission votes Monday on third and final reading of a residency ordinance for Memphis City Schools teachers becoming part of the consolidated school system with the start of the new school year in August.

The ordinance would apply the county charter requirement that government employees include Shelby County Schools teachers live within Shelby County to city schools teachers.

It specifically gives those MCS teachers living outside the county five years to move within the county and it exempts city schools teachers who lived outside Shelby County before Sept. 1, 1986. That is when the county home rule charter with the residency requirement took effect.

On another front, the commission votes on the second of three readings of the referendum ordinance that would ask county voters to abolish the residency requirement in the charter. If approved Monday and again at the commission’s first meeting in April, the proposal would go to voters in the August 2014 county general election.

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