Judge Mays Decides 

Everybody claims victory in the school-merger suit, but the judge inclines toward Norris-Todd.


After federal judge Hardy Mays, who was in charge of the multiple consolidated litigations regarding the pending merger of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools, issued his ruling on Monday, one metaphor kept turning up in public responses, both formal and informal.  

People kept comparing what Mays did to the biblical decision by King Solomon concerning a baby being fought over by two women, each claiming to be its mother.

In the story, Solomon proposed slicing the baby in half and handing each disputant a part but would end up recognizing as the real mother the woman who was prepared to give up her claim rather than see the infant sacrificed in that way.

What Mays has done is at once more simple and more complex. To gauge from the diverse official responses by interested parties, his ruling has apparently allowed all the disputants in the merger case to claim victory.

But in essence, the decision, which was filed Monday morning in 146 pages, comes down to this: Mays finds the provisions of the Norris-Todd bill (aka Public Chapter One), which was passed by the Tennessee General Assembly early this year, to be both applicable and constitutional, though he declines to rule on its enabling of future new school districts, considering that matter not "ripe."

The decision also finds constitutional the 1961 Private Act under which MCS opted to surrender its charter last December, an action ratified by the Memphis City Council in February.

MCS is thereby regarded as defunct "for all purposes except the winding down of its operations and the transfer of administration to the Shelby County Board of Education ... ." The transfer, as specified in Mays' order, is to take place at the beginning of the school year 2013-14 — the exact timetable specified by Norris-Todd.

Though Judge Mays' order calls for MCS as an entity to complete its dissolution as of August 2013, he specifically directs that "[t]he city of Memphis has the obligation during the transition process to maintain its funding of the Memphis City Schools."

The planning commission established by Norris-Todd is also recognized as valid by the order, which directs all the entities entitled to make appointments to it to do so forthwith; its recommendations are to be submitted to the state education department for review, but approval of them will be within the province of a reconstituted Shelby County Schools board.

The order further specifies that the Shelby County Commission, which had petitioned for approval of its plans to appoint an immediate 25-member all-county school board, "lacks authority" to do so. Nor does the city of Memphis nor the city council have any official role in proceeding with the merger, which is to take place under the exclusive authority of Shelby County Schools.

First out of the box, Memphis City Council chairman Myron Lowery responded Monday afternoon as follows: "I am very pleased with Judge Mays' ruling today regarding the merger of the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools.

"Now that we have closure on questions surrounding the legality of the abolishment of Memphis City Schools, both Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools can begin working together to bring about a unified school system where every child in Shelby County will have an equal education under the new Shelby County School Board. Judge Mays' ruling is truly a compromise that will benefit all of our children."

At the conclusion of a press conference on another matter, Memphis mayor A C Wharton said, "I'm glad the judge has ruled because this moves us closer to some certainty. ... The key thing is we now can mark a date on the wall as to when certain things will be complete. ... In short order, both parties should be able to get things worked out and get this out of the headlines and get back to the children."

Wharton also noted the obvious — that in the long run the ruling "could bring some financial relief" for the city of Memphis.

Other local parties to the litigation — ranging from attorneys Dorsey Hopson (MCS board) and Allan Wade (city council) to SCS board president David Pickler and MCS superintendent Kriner Cash — issued responses expressing satisfaction that a ruling had finally been made and that future plans could be based on it.

Other points of interest: The current SCS districts are regarded as unconstitutional, and Friday, August 12th, was set by Mays as a date for the several parties to present plans for correcting the current mal-apportionment, which had been based only on areas outside the previous boundaries of the Memphis City Schools district.

That means, in effect, that, while the SCS board will administer the merger process, it will be a new SCS board that does so, one reapportioned according to district lines that are held constitutional.

The means of selecting the new members — numbering seven in all, as is the case at present — is unspecified in the order but could presumably involve, as the order seems to suggest, an immediate election once the new lines are approved and established.

That would be somewhat in accordance with the alternate Plan B already suggested by the county commission — a fact referenced by commission chairman Sidney Chism, who said, "I think [Mays] has pretty well split the baby. Everybody got something. As far I know, the commission will have a chance to do something with Plan B. We've already drawn some lines. We might have to tweak them a little bit."

It seemed possible at press time that some of the interested parties might ask Mays for an extension of the August 12th deadline.

Chism's commission colleague Steve Mulroy, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Memphis, was even more sanguine than Chism had been regarding the Mays ruling

In a widely distributed statement, Mulroy said, "This is a big win for those favoring prompt school merger. We have always emphasized the need for a unified school board; that it need be formed now, not in 2013; that it drive the bus on the transition to a unified system; and that the current 7-member SCS board is unconstitutional for lack of Memphis representation. The judge agreed with us on all those points."

Additionally, the SCS board is required to submit a plan to the state education commissioner ensuring that "teachers' rights are protected," and the commissioner will "determine whether the rights and privileges of teachers who work at Memphis City Schools will be impaired, interrupted, or diminished."

A key issue in the litigation, which had involved claims and counterclaims from all the relevant political and public educational bodies in Memphis and Shelby County, was the constitutionality of a provision in the Norris-Todd bill allowing the creation of special or municipal school districts in Shelby County in August 2013, at the time of the completed school-system merger.

The court adjudged that the issue of new school districts was not "ripe" and would not be until such time as attempts might be made to create the new districts (i.e., August 2013). Accordingly, the court dismissed claims on that point.

Governor Bill Haslam weighed in regarding the ruling late Monday afternoon by means of a statement released from the governor's office: "We are currently reviewing the judge's entire decision. In an initial review, the governor is pleased that the court ruled this year's Memphis city school legislation is constitutional.

"He also appreciates the clarity the decision affords the process and believes it is the appropriate time for the transition planning commission to get to work."



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