Monday, April 4, 2011

Judge Gets Parties to School-Merger Suit to Look for Compromise, Sets April 19 Deadline

Posted By on Mon, Apr 4, 2011 at 12:29 PM

Chism with media after hearing
  • JB
  • Chism with media after hearing
The several parties to ongoing federal litigation concerning the ifs, whens, and hows of local school system merger will have to wait at least 15 days before getting their first ruling from U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays.

That’s because Mays, after conferring with attorneys from all the separate contingents on Monday, said he would wait to see if they could hash out a compromise agreement of some sort. That was his aim in summoning the lawyers back to his chambers for consultation, and he apparently made some headway, because nobody involved was saying anything afterward about it being impossible to work something out.

After a preliminary hearing last week, Mays had set today as a time for ruling on a request by Shelby County Schools and the state Education Department that the Shelby County Commission be enjoined from proceeding with their plans to appoint 25 members to a new interim all-county school board.

And the judge said that if the various litigants and defendants could not agree on a common course of action before 9:30 a.m., Tuesday, April 19, he would go ahead and issue his ruling on that date. If, on the other hand, an agreement was reached, that would obviate the need for such a ruling — and conceivably for a subsequent trial, for that matter.

Sidney Chism, chairman of the county commission and a spectator at Monday’s abbreviated hearing, commented afterward, “I think everybody would try to work something out, because, if we stay in court, it would be a long drawn-out battle and very expensive.”

Word from Chism and other principals involved in the litigation was that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, an old hand at compromise, was taking charge of finding a solution. And, while nobody was willing to be specific about particulars, there was speculation about amending a key provision of the Norris-Todd bill, recently passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Haslam.

The bill’s validity and precedence over the private act which the county commission is relying on is one of the issues at stake in the current federal litigation (as well as in a separate federal suit filed last week that U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald will deal with). The bill establishes a 2 ½-year timetable for the merger of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools, after which, in August 2013, the creation of new school districts in Shelby County would be enabled.

Members of the county commission have previously indicated that abolition of the special-district provision of Norris-Todd would make that legislation more palatable — although, as Lawrence Giordano, an attorney for SCS, pointed out, the law is a Tennessee statute and state government would have to be involved in amending it.

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