Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Man and the Moment

An old hand at politics and tough issues has the schools case now.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 6, 2011 at 1:40 PM

The most important federal court case in Memphis in decades is in the hands of U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays.

All of the parties in the schools merger case filed their final briefs last week, setting the stage for Mays to decide when and how the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools will be consolidated. Everyone agrees it's going to happen sooner or later.

But what would it look like? How many superintendents? How many districts? New municipal school systems in Bartlett or Germantown? The briefs don't say, and no one can predict how parents and politicians will react to consolidation.

At stake is the future of two school systems with roughly 150,000 students. Memphis City Schools has 96 percent Title 1 schools, an average ACT score of 16.6, and per-pupil spending of $10,767. Shelby County Schools has 16 percent Title 1 schools, an average ACT score of 21, and per-pupil spending of $8,439.

Mays is a 1966 graduate of White Station High School in the pre-busing, pre-optional schools era. He is no stranger to controversial decisions and local and state politics. He was legal counsel and chief of staff to former Governor Don Sundquist when Sundquist proposed an ill-fated state income tax.

Here is a summary of the briefs. The underlying financial issue is who gets the bill for MCS, which has a 2011 budget of $1,196,364,127. Presently, 6 percent comes from the city of Memphis, 30 percent from Shelby County, 38 percent from the state, 21 percent from federal government, and 5 percent from other local sources. The city council wants to shed the financial obligation but has booked an 18-cent property tax hike just in case.

State of Tennessee: The Norris-Todd bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Bill Haslam rules. It provides for a transition team and a planning period, with consolidation in 2013-14. Memphis City Schools is a special school district. The transition will be "an immensely complex undertaking." The transition committee rules, not some creation of the Shelby County Commission. Memphis is "adequately represented" on the transition committee. The MCS and SCS boards stay in business for now.

Shelby County Schools: The Norris-Todd bill is binding. The hasty actions of the MCS board and city council created "the appearance of a chaotic, dangerous vacuum." The MCS board has continued to operate this year, post-surrender. It should exist during an orderly transition. MCS is a special school district. The Shelby County Commission can't legally make a new board.

Five members of the Shelby County Schools board, including Chairman David Pickler: The Shelby County Commission's plan to reconstruct the board with either 25 members or seven members from redrawn districts is "illegal." The current members should finish their terms. The commission must amend the county charter and hold a referendum to expand the board or redraw the districts.

Memphis City Schools: "MCS simply seeks direction from the court as to how and when it will cease to operate schools." MCS does not answer to the Memphis City Council and does not accept its resolution accepting surrender of the charter by the city school board in December. The court must say if "maintenance of effort" funding should continue. MCS is a special school district. MCS is entitled to $57 million in back funding for 2008-09 and $78 million for 2011-12, but the recently passed budget is "vague."

Memphis City Council: The charter surrender was approved by MCS, the council, and the voters. "MCS is not a weird, funny, or unique special school district. It is not a special school district at all." MCS is not a taxing district, and all the special school districts in Tennessee are taxing districts. Memphis citizens don't have proportional representation on the transition committee. "MCS administration is fighting to delay the inevitable consolidation as long as possible for its own self-serving interests."

City of Memphis: The city sides with the Memphis City Council. MCS no longer exists. The Norris-Todd bill is unconstitutional. The Shelby County Commission has the authority to make a new school board. "A new governing body is necessary to that transition."

Shelby County Commission: The county school board must be rebuilt, and soon. Otherwise Memphis residents will not have representation, because the current county board is elected outside of Memphis and its members are hostile to consolidation. "The single most important decision this court must make is how to provide immediate representation to the citizens of Memphis on the Shelby County school board." The options are a new 25-member board including the existing members or a new seven-member board from countywide redrawn districts.

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