Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Twenty Questions: What's a Special Master?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 at 11:25 AM

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A lot of Tuesday night's three-hour school board meeting (a "cup of coffee" in school board time) was like a game of Twenty Questions, with school board attorney Valerie Speakman doing the "I'm thinking of a person" part and channeling federal judge Hardy Mays.

Had this been a party or a courtroom, Mays, of course, would have been there himself to answer the questions. But a school board meeting is neither of those, so Speakman did her best to recount details of a meeting Monday between Mays and attorneys in the schools case.

Is this person important? Oh, yes, special you might say. Is it a special master? Yes. Man? Not necessarily. Lawyer? Not necessarily. Do we know this person? Maybe. Would the master be our master? Possibly. Do we have to hire this master? Not necessarily. Would the master make the merger happen faster? You're getting warm. Including the superintendent selection? Warmer.

So it went for an hour or so, board members probing and Speakman trying to be both candid and careful. Attorneys thought the meeting was going to be routine until Mays brought up the prospect of a special master, a land mine he had buried in the wording of the consent decree in 2011. After weighing Speakman's answers and interim Memphis City Schools superintendent/attorney Dorsey Hopson's too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen warning, the board decided not to request appointment of a special master, which is no guarantee that it won't happen anyway.

Speakman said Mays is not pleased with the progress of the merger and "made it clear that he would not entertain any delay." He is especially unhappy with the superintendent selection process. The board's timetable has that happening in May. The Transition Planning Commission recommended that it be done last year.

"He specifically said May is way too late in the game," Speakman said, adding that Mays "likes" Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken. Whether the judge likes him in the Facebook sense or likes him for the job is not clear. "Why is the judge trippin' about another superintendent?" asked board member Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr.

Speakman estimated the merger is about 20 percent done, but the unified board is on the verge of making "monumental decisions" regarding jobs in the next 30-45 days. When attorneys asked Mays if it was prudent to merge the school systems when the suburbs might find a way out, Mays said that issue is not going to be resolved in 30 days, 90 days, or even longer and the board should "put the concerns about municipal school districts out of their minds" and carry on. Adding words to the effect that when you entered into the consent decree in 2011 you should have considered the consequences.

Mays told the attorneys that politics should have no role in the merger. But the context of that statement is not known. Mays, former chief of staff to ex-governor Don Sundquist, was once a political creature himself and knows that one person's policies is another person's politics. The 23-member school board represents a spectrum of views and loyalties. Jobs, schools, hundreds of millions of dollars, and neighborhoods are at stake. To expect politics to play no part in this is not realistic.

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