Politics » Politics Feature

One More Hurdle

 In the school-merger case, the ball is back in the court of Judge Mays.

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Only a week after he gave what was generally regarded as an evenhanded ruling on the complicated multiple litigations regarding the forthcoming merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays must now evaluate various proposals for redistricting the electoral map for a soon-to-be-expanded Shelby County Schools system.

Mays must also deal with a formal request for an interim solution from the Shelby County Commission, whose two optional seven-member school-district plans, both vetted by the joint city-county office of planning and development on the basis of 2010 census information, may well form the basis of an approved final plan.

There was considerable debate at the special county commission meeting last Thursday that approved the two submitted plans.  

Commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Terry Roland, both Republicans representing the exclusively suburban District 4, proposed to present plans for a 13-member board, on the grounds that 13 districts would more fairly represent the various components of Shelby County's population. Nobody on the commission quarreled with that concept in principle, but it was voted down after several variants and several timetables for implementing a 13-member board (or, alternatively, an 11-member board) had been proposed.

The problem for the commission majority was that Judge Mays had clearly specified a seven-member board, in keeping with the number spelled out in the existing Shelby County charter, and that asking him to set aside that structure would require either a consent decree based on the concurrence of all the litigating parties in the merger matter or a formal charter-amendment process.

"We can always do that later," Chairman Sidney Chism said, and the majority agreed.

Then came the most intense debate, over the matter of an interim county school board. Commissioner Steve Mulroy advocated that the commission present to Mays a resolution urging the expediting of such a board, so as to proceed with the merger process. Arguments ensued over whether a special election should be called this fall or, as Bunker argued, as late as next March, in tandem with the 2012 Tennessee presidential primary and assorted regularly scheduled local elections.

Mulroy, noting the need to proceed on the school merger with a constitutionally valid, all-county school board, continued to press for the immediate creation of an interim board, either in an October special election to coincide with the Memphis municipal election or via appointment by the county Commission itself. Roland vehemently objected to the idea of making appointments, contending that the current Memphis-dominated commission majority would somehow skew the results.

In the end, the commission voted for a modified version of the Mulroy resolution that simply urged Judge Mays to allow the expediting of an interim school board, with both the appointment and special election processes suggested as options.

The commission meeting had followed by a day a meeting of the current version of the Shelby County Schools board that, retrospectively, came to resemble something out of The Sixth Sense.

On Wednesday, the big issue in the matter of a MCS-SCS merger had seemed to be whether and how soon the folks at MCS would respond to a request from the SCS board for information — all the information in MCS' possession — about the workings of the current city school system.

The idea, based on the SCS people's understanding of last week's ruling by Judge Mays, was that MCS officially was on its way out of existence and that it was up to Shelby County Schools to begin implementing the merger of the two systems, inevitable since the vote by the MCS board last December to dissolve itself was freshly certified by Judge Mays.

But the reality is that the current Shelby County Schools board was declared unconstitutional by Mays, whose ruling simultaneously guaranteed at least a caretaker existence for Memphis City Schools and its board until August 2013, the moment of formal merger.

In other words, it is the SCS board that is arguably defunct — though it continues to operate in the belief that it is alive, much in the way of some of the recently deceased characters in the aforementioned shocker movie by M. Night Shyamalan.

To vary the metaphor, the SCS meeting had also called to mind the boast of necromancer Owen Glendower in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One: "I can call spirits from the very deep." To which the skeptical Harry Hotspur responds, "But will they come ... ?"

Operating on the assumption that the Mays ruling on Monday had given them sanction, Shelby County Schools authorities formally resolved at Wednesday's SCS board meeting to renew their unheeded January request for full and complete records concerning the operation of Memphis City Schools.

The questions remained, however, whether SCS would have better success this time around and whether, under the circumstances, they were legally entitled to the records.

On the latter score, SCS board chairman David Pickler was, to say the least, unequivocal. "We have been given direct instructions by the judge," he said, echoing the sentiment expressed in the resolution just passed by his board, which quoted Mays as enjoining the SCS board to make "present decisions" regarding the future of Memphis public schools, teachers, and students and goes on to declare therefore that "it is necessary" for the SCS board "to have immediate access to information that is possessed by the Memphis City Board of Education."

SCS superintendent John Aitken seemed to concur, saying, "I think we'll get a more favorable response, because the judge has ruled."

SCS attorney Valerie Speakman also thought the SCS board's request should be honored. "Absolutely," said Speakman, "because how do you plan for the future if you don't know what's there?"

But if the opinion expressed Thursday by Martavius Jones, current president of the MCS board, turns out to reflect the views of the other city school board members and of the MCS administration, the current SCS board shouldn't count on getting any of that information it wanted anytime soon. Jones said he thought city school board officials would wait until a new county school board was constituted in line with Mays' ruling.

This is yet one more question that Mays will ultimately answer.

• Although well more than a dozen candidates are vying for the open District 7 city council seat, which was vacated by longtime council power Barbara Swearengen Ware, the race, which is subject to runoff provisions, may come down to a duel between Kemba Ford, the daughter of currently imprisoned former state senator John Ford, and Lee Harris, a well-connected professor of law at the University of Memphis.

Harris, who previously ran for the 9th District congressional seat in 2006, is well aware of the challenge he's up against, and he's already cranked up a fairly active P.R. machine. This week he put out a list of endorsements that runs heavy to members of the current Shelby County Democratic executive committee, as well as county commissioner Mulroy, his U of M colleague.

• Even as candidates gear up for the current election cycle, some are still waging old election campaigns — notably the Democratic countywide candidates who were certified as defeated in the 2010 election.

Charging a lengthy list of violations, some owing to carelessness on the part of the Shelby County Election Commission, some suggesting conscious manipulation of the results by the election commission, the defeated slate sued to overturn the results in Chancery Court, where Chancellor Arnold Goldin rejected their motion. They are currently appealing his verdict.

And Chip Forrester, the state Democratic Party chairman, was scheduled to play host to a fund-raiser this Wednesday night to raise funds for that appeal.

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