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Deal or No Deal?

The Memphis/Shelby County schools mess seeks a "grand bargain"

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It being Thanksgiving week and all, it sure would be nice if we could add to our undoubted stock of blessings one more — an end to the seemingly interminable standoff regarding local education.

As we go to press, the various parties to the litigation regarding the future of six proposed suburban school districts are involved in a mediation process convened by presiding U.S. district judge Hardy Mays. And it is highly unlikely that any resolution will come of the process until next week. Monday, perhaps, or Tuesday the 27th, the date set by Mays as the end for mediation.

At the risk of being superseded by events (the next print edition of the Flyer won't hit the streets until Wednesday the 28th, although we'll be posting online), we would assume that, failing a mediated resolution of differences, Mays' long-awaited verdict in the case will also be forthcoming that week. The Shelby County Election Commission will meanwhile have met on Monday the 26th to certify the November 6th election results, which involve school board elections in the six suburbs — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, and Millington.

Compromise would appear difficult. It's like in the case of pregnancy: You either are, or you're not. Similarly, there either will be a Unified School District encompassing public schools throughout Shelby County, or there won't.

Nevertheless, and though all the parties to the litigation — city, county, and state — have conscientiously obeyed the Omerta imposed on the process by Mays, effectively shutting off the usual flow of info-leaks, some inkling of a possible agreement has floated out from other sources. For one, there's David Pickler, the former longtime president of the old Shelby County Schools board. It is Pickler's espousal of special-school-district status for the then suburban system that is credited by some as the proximate cause of the Memphis City Schools board's decision to surrender its charter and force merger.

Ironically enough, Pickler now serves on the Unified board as the representative for Germantown and Collierville, though he makes no secret of his continued support for municipal school independence. What he now suggests is that, in return for the plaintiffs (the Shelby County Commission, the Memphis City Council, and the city of Memphis) dropping their suit, the suburban municipalities might delay the start of their school systems — now scheduled for August 2013, when merger takes place — until later: 2014, maybe, or even 2015. The question of how to make over existing school buildings, and at what cost, could be worked out later. (The fact is, state senator Mark Norris, author of the legislation allowing for the suburban districts, would likely wave his magic wand again on their behalf.) Recipe for a deal?

Stir in these other relevant — and universally known — facts: 1) One way or another, the suburbs will have their own schools — by the charter route, if necessary; 2) The case for constitutionality of Norris' enabling legislation would appear fatally weak, inasmuch as it was demonstrably crafted for Shelby County only; 3) Nobody really wants to go on to a phase two of trial, devoted to the messy issue of alleged resegregation.

However all of this cooks up is anybody's guess. But at any rate, Happy Thanksgiving!

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