Leaders at Table in Separate Talks

By Bill Dries

The elected officials on all sides of the schools merger lost one item on their plates last week as the school year ended for Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools students and parents.

Those in the systems working on the terms of the schools merger had also been running the two separate school systems as well until last week’s final bell.

But the last school year for the two separate systems is hardly the end of the political multi-tasking that is the dominant feature of the series of events now in its third year.

The countywide school board, for instance, is involved in two sets of private talks.

One is with leaders of Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities. And the talks also include the Shelby County Commission. The issue is the formation of municipal school districts in the suburbs after the first year of the schools merger – specifically the transfer of school buildings in the suburban towns and cities to those districts.

County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz said suburban leaders are also interested in stopping the still-pending case in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee over the formation of the school districts.

“They want to come back now and negotiate now with us because they don’t want the county going after them under equal protection issues,” he said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

The County Commission is contesting the formation of the school districts on several fronts in the second part of the schools merger case. The commission alleges the suburban school systems would amount to racial resegregation of public schools in Shelby County.

Suburban leaders vigorously deny that would be the case.

U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays has indicated that if the issue is not settled and goes to trial, it could be a much lengthier case than the previous parts of the case over the merger. It could be the equivalent of a 1960s or 1970s schools desegregation case in terms of its complexity, Mays has said.

“What can be negotiated there are equal protection issues and assuring from the standpoint of the County Commission that there is compensation for the buildings,” Ritz said.


The talks aren’t the first attempt by the commission and suburban leaders to reach a settlement. Talks late last year into 2013 on the matter failed to produce a settlement.

This time, the school board is involved directly for the first time.

“No one wants to give away the buildings, Chairman Ritz,” Orgel said on the same program. “I believe they belong to the Shelby County School Board. Some deal needs to be worked out. Old buildings in real estate are an albatross.”

The school board also has its attorney talking with attorneys for the city of Memphis and the Memphis City Council about the $57 million court judgment against the city from the lawsuit the school system filed in 2008 over the council’s decision that year to cut funding to Memphis City Schools.

The city filed a counter claim for nearly $100 million and until that is resolved, the judgment can’t be collected by the school system. The judgment transfers to the consolidated school district.


“I think we’ll see a resolution of that. I know it’s a long time coming,” Orgel said. “Do I think it will be $57 million? Probably not. We’ll be paid over time probably.”

Meanwhile, City Council members pressed their attorney, Allan Wade, last week on the same point.

“This is a chip on the table,” Wade said when asked if a settlement would mean the city coming up with some amount of money to pay the school system. “They have chips on the table. We have chips on the table and we are trying to reconcile them. I can’t say more than that.”

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has said he wants to be cautious about any kind of funding for fear it could be judged as a “maintenance of effort” obligation the city would continue to have in future fiscal years.

Orgel and school board members are looking for multiple sources of funding for at least the one-time start-up costs of the merger that begins for students with the Aug. 5 return to classes.

“It’s temporary, so I don’t think we need to rely on it,” Orgel said of any amount that an agreement might produce. “It would have been in reserves anyway if it had been paid six years ago.”