Question of Interim County School Board Dominates Special County Commission Meeting

Consensus is that current Shelby County Schools board, ruled unconstitutional by Judge Hardy Mays, cannot proceed with school merger plans.


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Commissioner Steve Mulroy tells the media why there should be an interim county school board.

Well, here’s an irony for you — or a scenario out of The Sixth Sense.

On Wednesday the big issue in the matter of a Memphis City Schools-Shelby County Schools merger 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 this week’s ruling by federal Judge Hardy Mays, was that MSC 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 MSC board last December to dissolve itself and freshly certified by Judge Mays.

But the reality is that the current Shelby County Schools board was declared unconstitutional by Judge 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 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.

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

Jones had just left Thursday afternoon’s special called meeting of the Shelby County Commission, at which the question of how and when to create a new county board had turned out to be the most vexing question.

There was considerable debate back and forth at the Commission meeting, which was called to certify the Commission’s response to Judge Mays’ request that each of the litigating parties in the merger dispute submit its plan for a new county board by Friday.

In the end, the Commission resolved to submit two similar plans, each prepared some months ago, each involving a seven-member county school board in keeping with Judge Mays’ specifications, each freshly updated by the Office of Planning and Development on the basis of 2010 census information. The Commission majority expressed a preference for what it called Plan 2, which more cleanly separated the existing area served by Shelby County Schools from that now controlled by MCS.

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 he 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 Judge Mays a resolution urging the expediting of such a board, so as to proceed with the process of merger. 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 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 second 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. Once again the ball is in his court.


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