Last Deadline Passes in Schools Case

By Bill Dries

Two days before Christmas, the nearly three-year-old federal court case that was a key part of the change in Shelby County public education passed what might be one of its final deadlines.

Dec. 23 was the deadline for the many sides in the multifaceted court case to get back to U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on what, if any, issues were left to be resolved by the court.

The federal lawsuit over Shelby County public schools is playing out in U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays' courtroom in the Clifford Davis/Odell Horton Federal Building. 

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

When Mays first made the request in August, still left was the substantial argument to come over the Shelby County Commission’s third-party claim that permitting suburban school districts would racially “resegregate” public education in Shelby County – and in the process violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

There were several attempts to negotiate an out-of-court settlement on the issue, starting in late 2012 with the idea of systems of state-approved charter schools in each suburb. Those were talks – all of which failed – between attorneys for the county commission and attorneys for the suburban leaders.

In June, the talks began that led to the agreements approved by all parties at the end of 2013. And the talks reached the Shelby County Schools board this time.

There were elements that changed along the path to final approval – a path with many votes by many entities even before the election of the suburban school boards that eventually came into being.

When direct talks between Shelby County Schools and the suburban leaders began, the initial proposal was for the suburban school systems to lease buildings from SCS for a term of either 40 years or 99 years.

But the agreements that were negotiated and approved were for the suburban school systems to own the school buildings transferred to them by Shelby County Schools.

The buildings are transferred to the respective school districts via a quitclaim deed for a token amount of $10 in each of the six agreements.

But the suburban governments each agreed to pay varying amounts between $7.1 million and $676,044 over a 12-year period, dollar figures arrived at through a formula that was to reflect the cost Shelby County Schools would continue to bear for the retirement of teachers – whether they stay with the county school system or leave it to join the suburban school systems.

The other issue that provided a surprise in the last part of the settlement talks was Shelby County Schools retaining students in unincorporated Shelby County. The school system also kept four schools within the boundaries of two suburban cities – Lucy Elementary School in Millington and Germantown Elementary, Middle and High schools in Germantown.

SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited the majority of students at Germantown Middle and High schools who live outside Germantown, and the closeness of the other two schools to unincorporated areas and their role in feeder patterns.

And without the four schools, SCS leaders said they might be forced to seek county funding to build new schools on their side of the suburban borders.

Germantown leaders were more vocal than Millington leaders in opposition to the proposal, but both groups agreed.

With the agreements came provisions for open enrollment. And students at the three Germantown schools can continue attending those schools or can attend the new municipal school district in Germantown.

All six agreements also acknowledged another key difference from original plans by suburban leaders to include students in unincorporated Shelby County in their school systems.

The original plan faced additional legal barriers because the parents of those students would have had no elected representation on the suburban school boards.

In the joint notice of settlement filed Dec. 23, all sides agreed that, “The language of the written agreements has been finalized and agreed to, but the agreements have not yet been fully executed at this time.”

When they are fully executed, Mays will be asked to approve a consent decree. The decree will dismiss the commission’s legal claim and all others, with all sides agreeing not to refile those claims.

Still to come are formal notices from each of the suburban school systems that they either intend to open for classes next August for their first school years or that they will open in a later school year.

With that notice, the formal transfer of school buildings begins.

Suburban leaders have said they intend to open their school systems with the 2014-2015 school year.

All six suburban school boards selected their respective superintendents just before the Christmas holiday week began.