Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Local Litigants Bypass State Resistance, Concur on New School Board Plans

Posted By on Wed, Aug 24, 2011 at 5:23 PM

Walter Bailey, chairman of County Commissions education committee, reads MOU at press conference.
  • JB
  • Walter Bailey, chairman of County Commission's education committee, reads MOU at press conference.

UPDATE At Thursday's meeting of the current Shelby County School Board, which formally affirmed the Memorandum of Understanding, SCS board chairman David Pickler confirmed that resistance from the state Attorney General and the state Department of Education had impeded completion of the agreement announced on Wednesday.

Pickler said the state officials had regarded the 23-member Board created by the MOU as both unwieldy and in conflict with the premises of the Norris-Todd bill.

Although stout and unexpected resistance from the state Attorney General’s office threatened to derail it and managed to delay it for several days, a final agreement was reached on Wednesday between the various parties involved in the long-running school-merger case.

(One observer close to the negotiations attributed the State's resistance to the state Education Department, one of the many organs of government the A.G serves.)

Basically, the agreement is in the spirit of the initial ruling made earlier this month by presiding U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays. Everybody gets a substantial portion of their original wish-list.

In particular, the nine current members of the current Memphis City Schools board and the seven current members of the Shelby county Schools board will continue to serve on a combined city/county board until September 1, 2013, the point at which final MCS-SCS merger is effected. The two systems' administrations will continue to function, more or less independently, until September 1, 2013.

As of that date, the remaining members of the city and county boards will leave the new board in the hands of seven other members, who will have been elected in August 2012 from as many districts across Memphis and Shelby County. And, prior to those elections, seven members representing the same newly apportioned districts will have been appointed by the Shelby County Commission, beginning October 1 of this year — making for a total interim board membership of 23.

Convening all the parties in his courtroom mid-way on the third day of the mediation which he presided over (Tuesday was an off day), U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays read a Memorandum of Understanding signed onto by all parties save one.

The one holdout was the State of Tennessee — or more specifically the state Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr., who had been something of a Forgotten Man during earlier legal proceedings. Various principals, including David Pickler and Martavius Jones, the presidents of the Shelby County and Memphis School boards, and Judge Mays himself, began attempting to persuade the State’s representatives, legal and political, to sign on to the MOU, as early as Friday, when agreement was reached by the various other parties to the litigation.

The Attorney General’s objection — or that of whatever State officials may have prompted him — could have been to the fact that Norris-Todd, the state legislation which forms the basic framework for the merger, was widely interpreted as meaning that both the MCS and SCS boards would continue as entities until final merger. Under the MOU approved Wednesday by Judge Mays, whose earlier ruling had declared the current Shelby County board unconstitutional, the two systems will continue to be administered separately but will be governed by the newly created interim board.

At various times, representatives of state government and the State's attorneys in Memphis indicated a receptiveness to the new arrangement, but Cooper was to remain adamant. The impasse was finally broken on Wednesday afternoon when the Attorney General assented to urgent pleas from the other principals to seek dismissal from the case.

And so, when Mays convened the parties Wednesday afternoon, the first action was a statement from Ross Dyer, a lawyer representing the State, seeking dismissal from the case “without prejudice.” Judge Mays granted the motion, releasing the State from involvement, and then proceeded to read from the terms of the MOU signed onto by all other principals.

When formal approval is conferred on the agreement in the form of a consent decree by the various parties — including the two school boards, the Memphis city government, the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission, and the Memphis Education Association — Judge Mays will appoint a Special Master. Under the Judge’s oversight, the Special Master will help implement the agreement until the final merger date of September 1, 2013.

Judge Mays also suggested that the current chairs of the two school boards — Pickler of SCS and Jones of MCS — should proceed forthwith in appointing five members each of an interim 21-member Planning Commission provided for by Norris-Todd. The state law also calls for appointments by County and State governments.

One question has intrigued several observers: Has the advisory aspect of that Planning Commission been co-opted by the fact of the newly constituted interim School Board? The same question may have piqued the interest of Attorney General Cooper.

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