Schools Merger Up to Judge Mays Now

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No guns, no sex, no stolen cash, no cops. Just a stack of holiday homework for U.S. District Judge Samuel H. Mays that may be the most important federal court case in Memphis in decades.

All of the parties in the schools merger case filed their final briefs on Thursday, setting the stage for Mays to decide when and how the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools will be consolidated. The question of "if" seems moot since everyone agrees it's going to happen sooner or later.

There are seven players in the game. Their briefs total 180 pages, plus a few hundred pages of supporting exhibits. Not exactly a full-employment act for lawyers, but a pretty good lick. Judge Mays says he will make a ruling with dispatch.

Here is a summary of the final positions. At stake: the future of two school systems with roughly 150,000 students, one (Memphis City Schools) overwhelmingly poor and black, average ACT score 16.6, and one (Shelby County Schools) majority middle-class and affluent and racially mixed, average ACT score 21.

The legalistic blah-blah about special school districts is not mere semantics. The underlying issue is who gets the bill for paying for MCS, which has a 2011 budget of $1,196,364,127. Presently, 6% comes from the city of Memphis, 30% from Shelby County, 38% from the state, 21% from federal government, and 5% from other local sources. The city council wants to get out from under the financial obligation but has booked a 18-cent property tax hike just in case. When the systems are consolidated it is possible that there will be one countywide tax for schools, not a separate tax in Memphis in addition to the county tax.

State of Tennessee, represented by Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr. The Norris-Todd bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam on February 11th rules. It provides for a transition team and a three-year planning period, with consolidation in 2013-14. Memphis City Schools is a special school district. The Memphis City Council is "confused" about that. The Tennessee Department of Education website made "a mistake" by calling MCS a "city" school district. The transition will be "an immensely complex undertaking" so three years (now more like two years) is appropriate. The transition committee rules, not some new creation of the Shelby County Commission. Memphis is "adequately represented" on the transition committee (although Mayor A C Wharton didn't get to make any picks). Both the MCS and SCS boards continue to exist in the meantime.

Memphis City Schools, represented by Michael Marshall and Ernest Kelly Jr. MCS will cease to exist in the future but needs some court guidance. MCS does not answer to the Memphis City Council and does not accept its resolution accepting surrender of the charter by the city school board in December. (There is big money at stake for MCS.) The court must say if "maintenance of effort" funding should continue. "MCS simply seeks direction from the court as to how and when it will cease to operate schools." MCS is a special school district. MCS is entitled to $57 million in back funding for 2008-2009 and $78 million for 2011-12, but the recently passed budget is "vague." Shelby County Schools will succeed MCS when the judge says so.

Five members of the Shelby County School board, including chairman David Pickler, represented by D. Scott Bennett and others. The Shelby County Commission's plan to reconstruct the board with either 25 members or seven members from redrawn districts is wrong. The current members, including Pickler, should finish their terms. "The Commission's plan to hold new elections is illegal." The commission must amend the county charter and hold a referendum to expand the board to 25 members or redraw the districts.

The city of Memphis, represented by City Attorney Herman Morris Jr. The city sides with the Memphis City Council, which filed its own brief. The MCS board surrendered the charter. The city approved it. The voters approved it 2-1 in March. MCS no longer exists. The Norris-Todd bill is unconstitutional. The Shelby County Commission has the authority to make a new school board. "A new governing body is necessary to that transition."

The Shelby County Commission, represented by Leo Bearman and others. The county school board must be rebuilt, and soon. Otherwise Memphis residents will not have representation, because the current county board is elected outside of Memphis and its members have shown hostility to consolidation. The legal options are a new 25-member board including the existing members or a new 7-member board from countywide redrawn districts. "The single most important decision this court must make is how to provide immediate representation to the citizens of Memphis on the Shelby County school board." MCS is not a special school district. The MCS board is "powerless" because it surrendered the charter. The current Shelby County school board must go because it is anti-consolidation and anti-Memphis. The court must give immediate relief because important decisions are being made during the transition period.

The Memphis City Council, represented by Allan Wade and others. The charter surrender was approved by MCS, the council, and the voters. "MCS is not a weird, funny, or unique special school district. It is not a special school district at all." MCS is not a taxing district and all the special school districts in Tennessee are taxing districts. Memphis citizens don't have proportional representation on the transition committee. "MCS administration is fighting to delay the inevitable consolidation as long as possible for its own self-serving interests." (That would be Supt. Kriner Cash, an opponent of consolidation last year.)

Shelby County Schools, represented by Chuck Cagle and others. The Norris-Todd bill is binding. The hasty actions of the MCS board and city council created "the appearance of a chaotic, dangerous vacuum." The MCS board has continued to operate this year, post-surrender. It should exist during an orderly transition. MCS is a special school district. The Shelby County Commission can't legally make a new board and should be enjoined by the court from doing so.

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