Standstill then Postponement in Schools Trial



Samuel H. Mays Jr.
  • Samuel H. Mays Jr.
Federal Judge Samuel Hardy Mays may have averted an outbreak of narcolepsy in his courtroom when he postponed the schools trial that had come to a standstill in its second day.

The ponderous proceedings will resume on September 20th to determine whether suburbs can start their own municipal school system next August or September.

“Every delay makes it harder,” said Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald. “But as long as he does not delay the election of school board members (in November) we still have the possibility of making it happen. Of course we’ve still got the building argument that has to be held in some form and whatever other things might be thrown at us.”

The postponement happened Wednesday afternoon when a witness called by the lawyers for the suburbs “drilled down” into demographic data for Gibson County and the city of Milan, about 100 miles northeast of Memphis.

Carolyn Anderson, a “GIS specialist” or computer map maker for the Tennessee Legislature, was describing how she gathered population data on school-age children in small towns and their urban growth areas. Attorneys Allan Wade and David Bearman repeatedly objected that she was giving her opinion and was not qualified as an expert witness. Mays overruled the objections, and Anderson googled Tennessee Census data on her computer and slowly worked her way to spread sheets and maps for Gibson County that were shown on courtroom monitors.

When the objections persisted and the delays grew longer, Mays declared a postponement.

Gibson County is one of the counties that attorneys for the Shelby County suburbs say fits the requirements of the state enabling legislation for new municipal school systems. Wade and Bearman say the legislation was narrowly drawn for Shelby County and violates the state constitution.

The law sponsored by Mark Norris and Curry Todd of suburban Shelby County applies to school mergers where a special school district dissolves into a county school district and increases the enrollment 100 percent or more. Adding Memphis City Schools to Shelby County schools would boost the enrollment of the current county system from 46,000 to about 146,000 in a unified system. The Gibson County special school district currently has 3,586 students and Milan has 2,087 students.

The trial has been narrowly focused on the language of the law and demographic data rather than statements by lawmakers assuring their colleagues that the law would only apply to Shelby County. Attorneys for the Shelby County Commission, over objections from the other side, played tapes of those comments in pretrial hearings in July. The postponement suggests there could be more expert witnesses and another day or more of dueling demographers.

“We are kind of on hold until November,” said McDonald, who has attended the trial. “We have got our committee working full speed ahead to try to get as many things ready for an elected school board as they can. We will keep going unless the judge tells us to stop.”

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