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VOL. 128 | NO. 227 | Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Arlington, Lakeland Schools Deals Show Complexity

By Bill Dries

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The Arlington and Lakeland school boards aren’t even in office yet and there is already a tentative agreement with Shelby County Schools on buildings and attendance zones for the two suburban districts.

Those two school boards among others will have to give their approval to the agreement for it to happen.

But the talks that produced the agreement were between attorneys for elected leaders of both suburban towns and the Shelby County Schools system with Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz involved in behalf of the commission.

It’s an indication of the complexity of the talks against the backdrop of a goal of trying to open all six suburban school districts by next August.

Ritz was the only commissioner involved because having more than one commissioner in the talks would have meant the meetings had to be open under Tennessee’s open meetings law.

The same would have been true for two or more school board members. So Shelby County Schools had its general counsel, Valerie Speakman, negotiating along with superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

And the suburban school boards were just elected and none of their members are officially in office, but those running without opposition, which was the majority of the board members across the six towns and cities, have been talking with their respective suburban mayors for some time.

The suburban leaders would like to have school assignments for parents of children affected by the second historic school change in as many school years by the Christmas break, the halfway point in the current school year.

No one was talking terms of the agreements as word of the deals emerged publicly during the Monday, Nov. 18, Shelby County Commission session.

The commission does not have to approve the agreements on school buildings and attendance zones. But the body that is the sole local funder of public education in Shelby County is scheduled to vote at a special meeting Thursday at 1 p.m. with a decision to come next month on dropping the part of the federal lawsuit that claims the suburban school districts would racially “resegregate” public schools in Shelby County. That is the third-party claim filed by the commission, which is the only remaining part of the lawsuit undecided and unsettled.

Dropping the lawsuit isn’t part of the negotiations strictly speaking. But suburban leaders have said any agreement on attendance zones and school buildings, terms involving them paying Shelby County Schools in particular, depend on the lawsuit being dropped.

“I want to make sure that Shelby County is protected where the buildings are concerned.”

–Heidi Shafer

The result is commissioners will be poring over the written terms of the settlement for a number of reasons – some having to do with the lawsuit, others having to do with the specific arrangement between each of the suburban school districts and Shelby County Schools.

“I want to make sure that it treats all of the students of Shelby County fairly without providing advantage to one group or another,” said Commissioner Steve Mulroy, who is among those who believe there are legitimate concerns about the suburban school systems resegregating public education. “I want to make sure that it shows proper deference to the unified school board’s authority over a number of different things and it general comports with my own views of fairness and equity.”

Commissioner Heidi Shafer is among the minority on the commission who don’t accept the remaining claims in the federal lawsuit. She wants to know how the school systems coexist and what happens in the process.

“I want to make sure that Shelby County is protected where the buildings are concerned, that Shelby County isn’t going to end up putting itself in a position where it might have to build new buildings somewhere down the road if the suburbs no longer want to educate the folks who aren’t in their township,” she said. “I also want to make sure the municipalities are treated fairly and they are not in a position where they’ve got school buildings that are empty in their communities that they can’t use.”

Shafer said those in the Lakeland and Arlington talks had been close to an agreement in recent days.

“I want to know what the elements are. I don’t want to pass it so I can find out what’s in it,” she said after Monday’s commission meeting, which included a 15-minute closed session with the commission’s attorney in the federal lawsuit. “We were told yesterday they had a deal and then they didn’t have a deal. … They didn’t actually have a deal until five minutes before we went into our executive session.”

Commissioner Chris Thomas delayed his resolution calling for the commission to drop the lawsuit in its entirety after the attorney-client session.

“I think the others are getting closer,” he said of the four other sets of talks. “If we get those two for sure and get some of the others moving, I think we are moving in the right direction.”

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