A year or so ago in this space, we professed a high regard for the judicial acumen of U.S. district judge Hardy Mays, who had just disposed of several competing litigations in the city/county school-merger case to everyone's apparent
satisfaction and thereby bestowed at least a temporary peace on an unruly public environment.
In the intervening year, the 21-member Transition Planning Commission proposed by the Norris-Todd Act of 2011 and approved by Judge Mays has labored conscientiously and produced a massively documented merger plan titled "Multiple Achievement Paths." The plan allows for what would appear to be maximum autonomies for the sake of those suburban areas of Shelby County whose public schools have up until now been the province of the Shelby County Schools system. It also makes provision for innovations being actively pursued by Governor Bill Haslam and the state Education Department, including a proliferation of charter schools and new state-administered school "districts" charged with overseeing both failing schools and those with exceptional educational prospects.
We have now reached a pivotal stage at which further decisions have to be made — and quickly. Some are the burden of a 23-member interim Unified School Board, whose internal divisions between city and county interests reflect all the existing political divides. Most immediately, the board must resolve the question of who is to lead the new Unified District as superintendent, and it must do that even as its membership is being amended by the forthcoming board elections of August 2nd. Other vital decisions must be made by the citizenry at large, both in those elections for the seven positions on an ultimately permanent board and, where the suburbs are concerned, in scheduled referenda that will determine if the county's six outer municipalities will be part of the county's Unified District or will attempt, under the aegis of Norris-Todd and this spring's follow-up legislation, to establish separate school districts of their own.
A "yes" vote for suburban school districts at this point will wreak havoc in two ways — for the municipalities themselves, who may find their targeted start-up deadlines of August 2013 unrealistically abrupt; and for the implementation of the carefully prepared TPC plan, which, for all the rosy hopes of its creators, won't scale down easily to a truncated, urban-centered version.
We do not profess to own any legal acumen, but we have enough political sense to see the prospect of multiple train wrecks coming. So we hereby express the hope that Judge Mays will once again have his Solomonic hat on in dealing with a petition filed last week by a majority of the Shelby County Commission who hope to abort the August 2nd suburban referenda. The commissioners' stated grounds were that the legislation enabling the referenda improperly singles out Shelby County and allows for de facto resegregation.
All of that is for the judge to decide. Our own hope — our brief, as it were — is that he find a way to postpone all these converging reckonings for the year of grace and evaluation of the Unified District that the original, unmodified Norris-Todd Act seemed to propose.