Ready, Set, Sue!

In schools merger, you can’t tell the players without a program.


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Well, what do you know, everybody lawyered up.

Last week, there was a flurry of claims, counterclaims, and cross-claims in federal court over the pending merger of the city and county school systems. U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays drew the job of sorting it all out, starting with a scheduling conference Thursday.

And in one of the wonders of democracy, 150 people will be interviewed Wednesday by the Shelby County Commission for possible appointment to a new 25-member school board that may never meet. If it does meet, they will spend countless hours for next to nothing doing what attorneys get paid upwards of $250 an hour to do. Different strokes for different folks.

The impetus for all of this was the December 20th surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter by the school board and the March 8th approval of the Memphis referendum of the following question: "Shall administration of the Memphis City Schools, a special school district, be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?"

It was an expensive question, and not just because the election cost about $1 million. A referendum question should be clear and simple. Shall the drinking age be raised to 21? Shall beer be sold on Sunday morning? Shall the Jones Building be renamed the Smith Building? Ask a broad, open-ended question and you create a full-employment act for lawyers.

Based on court filings, here are the players and the positions.

Shelby County School Board — First to file, on February 11th, the same day that the Memphis City Council voted to accept the surrender of the MCS charter. And the same day the governor signed the Norris-Todd bill setting the terms for the transition. Legal team includes Chuck Cagle, veteran of school consolidations in Chattanooga, Knoxville, and other Tennessee cities.

The seven-member board sued the MCS board, the Memphis City Council, the U.S. Department of Education, Attorney General Eric Holder, and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Key points: The surrender created a "chaotic and dangerous vacuum" to be filled by the county board without a transition plan. The task is "impossible," and the surrender should be null and void.

In a separate legal action, five members of the county school board claimed the right to serve out their four-year terms.

Memphis City Schools — Veteran school board attorneys Ernest Kelly Jr., Mike Marshall, and Dorsey Hopson say the December 20th surrender of the charter was valid. The Memphis City Council, however, acted contrary to the intent of the board by trying to impose its own transition period to "wind up" affairs.

The federal court should determine the effect of the Norris-Todd bill. The city of Memphis has no authority to run a school system that gave up its charter. The MCS board exists until transfer to the county board happens. MCS is entitled to all funds until then, including a $57 million back-payment it wants immediately.

City of Memphis — Attorneys Herman Morris and Regina Morrison Newman say the Shelby County school board has made no attempt to perform its duty to the children of MCS. MCS teachers are ready and able to teach under the administration of the board.

The Norris-Todd bill is unconstitutional and violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, because there is a "history of long-standing avoidance of integration" in Memphis and Shelby County schools.

Memphis City Council — Attorney Allan Wade says MCS and the school board dissolved on February 11th after the council approved the school board vote to surrender the charter. This put MCS out of business even without the referendum. Shelby County has a duty to manage the former MCS. The Tennessee Department of Education should make Shelby County do its duty.

Shelby County Commission — Represented by attorney Leo Bearman Jr., commissioners want to appoint a new 25-member school board. It is unclear if current county school board members would be on it. Some current members of the MCS board have applied to be on the new board.

The backdrop of this action is the commission's institutional memory. Mark Norris was a commissioner before he was a state legislator, and veteran commissioners are still sore about the county school board's resistance to giving Memphians a voice in Shelby County schools.

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