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VOL. 128 | NO. 86 | Thursday, May 2, 2013

School Board Approached by Suburbs

By Bill Dries

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A new round of talks about the schools merger and municipal school districts is about to begin.

And this time, the countywide school board may be at the table.

Countywide school board attorney Valerie Speakman told school board members Tuesday, April 30, that attorneys for the leaders of Shelby County’s six suburban municipalities have sent her a letter about possible talks on issues that go beyond the consent decree governing the merger.

“The letter that we received goes far outside what was discussed in the consent decree and really talked about where do we go from here after the General Assembly passed the legislation,” she said, referring to the state law that lifts the statewide ban on establishing the municipal school districts suburban leaders favor.

“This round of negotiations has to do with a litany of issues … things like facilities and budgets,” Speakman added, differentiating the proposed talks from private talks late last year into the new year between attorneys for the suburbs and the Shelby County Commission.

Those talks were on possible terms for the establishment of charter school systems in the suburban towns and cities and did not result in any agreement.

The school board, which would have been a key element in setting any final terms involving school buildings and services to those school systems, was not involved in the talks.

“This round of negotiations has to do with a litany of issues ... things like facilities and budgets.”

–Valerie Speakman
Attorney, Countywide school board

The school board is not a party to the federal court litigation.

The status led to some frustration among school board members as well as suburban leaders.

Shelby County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz has denied there was any attempt by the commission and its attorneys to block contact between the suburban leaders and the school board.

Early reaction from school board members was that the board should be involved in the new round of talks.

“We need to be at the table too,” said school board member Jeff Warren. “Whatever it takes to get us at this table.”

Speakman said local procedural rules in the Western District of Tennessee require a formal inquiry of the other parties.

“I think we’ve been invited and no one has objected to us being at the table,” she told the board. “It’s possible for us to inquire of the parties and then prior even to filing the motion get back with you to share with you what their responses were.”

Speakman’s comment came at the end of a long and eventful day in the schools merger saga in which the school board voted down a resolution asking U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays to consider delaying the merger for a school year.

It quickly became apparent the resolution by school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. didn’t have enough votes to pass.

Interest intensified earlier in the day when Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said at the Memphis Rotary Club that he thought a delay might be a good idea.

“I think if it could be accomplished, it would be good for the obvious reason that this time next year we may be looking at municipal schools,” Luttrell said in response to a question from the audience. “We’re going to have to make some significant financial realignments.”

But the momentum on the board waned with the first public remarks to the school board as a group by Rick Masson, the special master appointed by Mays to oversee the path to the merger by the Aug. 5 start of the new school year.

“There really is no legal basis for the judge to make that decision,” Masson told the board. “You could end up with a more difficult situation.”

For instance, Masson said attorneys for the city of Memphis likely would oppose such a move because it would mean another fiscal year of city funding for Memphis City Schools and central office reductions for the single consolidated school district would have to be undone requiring the school board to find $14 million in funding that is now the savings from those cuts.

“There are more financial issues than you have today,” Masson, a former city chief administrative officer, warned.

School board member David Reaves, meanwhile, moved a substitute motion urging Mays to instead immediately reduce the 23-member board to the seven members elected in 2012 instead of waiting until Sept. 1 as planned.

That motion also failed.

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