A Republican lawmaker who spearheaded an effort by six Memphis suburbs to start public school systems says the parties are mulling their next options after a federal judge ruled against the action.
U.S. District Judge Samuel "Hardy" Mays, Jr., issued a 65-page ruling Tuesday evening saying that the state law that allowed voters in the six Shelby County municipalities (Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington) to decide if they wanted their own school districts violates the Tennessee Constitution because it applies only to one county.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville said Wednesday that the court's ruling is still being reviewed and that it remains to be seen what action, if any, should be taken.
Voters on Aug. 2 approved referendums to form school districts in the six county municipalities.
"We are deeply disappointed that our efforts to form a municipal school district under PC 905 have been halted by Judge Mays' ruling," Germantown Mayor Goldsworthy said. "Although this particular pathway to our own school district has been blocked, I believe our Board of Mayor and Aldermen is determined to fulfill the mandate delivered by Germantown voters in August."
The historic and highly anticipated ruling came after a nearly two-year legal battle, which started in December 2010 when the Memphis City School board voted to dissolve its charter merging the city and Shelby County school systems.
In February 2011 Tennessee lawmakers passed the Norris-Todd Law, which delayed the merger until 2013, and in May 2012 state lawmakers lifted the ban on new municipal school systems, in a law tailored only to Shelby County.
In August 2012 the suburbs voted to form their own school systems and elected school boards on Nov 6.
Judge Mays didn't shut the door on municipal schools for good. He's given a Dec. 27 deadline for arguments to be entered to hear whether or not separate districts should be allowed after the merger is official in August. The arguments will be on the constitutionality of the law that says the ban on municipal schools is lifted in a county when a special districts merges with the county district, which is of course the process Memphis and Shelby County schools is going through presently.
The burden will again be proving that part of the law was not written just for Shelby County, which is against the state constitution.
"I don't see how it was designed to apply anywhere else," said Alan Wade, Memphis city attorney. "I don't think the proof in the case it could apply anywhere else."
"When Judge Mays ruled initially he did not rule on that issue," added Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman. "So we've been under the assumption that at the end of July, beginning of August 2013 we were going to be able to start the planning process for our schools."
Attorneys have been preparing for the January 2013 trial on whether municipal schools would cause resegregation in Shelby County, but Judge Mays' ruling put the trial on hold indefinitely.
Parents say to be as gracious in victory as in defeat. Wise words from people who never won the lottery. It's especially sage advice if you're a member of the county commission who came out on the winning side as plaintiffs in the school merger lawsuit.
"I guess you could say we won," Commissioner Mike Ritz said. "I don't think it's appropriate for the commission to gloat about this at all."
So, if the winning majority of the commission might have been inwardly delirious with glee, it was mum's the word during their Wednesday committee meetings. Yet, in the hallways there was plenty of talk about the immediate future, at least the time covering from now until the anticipated legal appeals start hitting the desk of Judge Mays.
"Well, I just told a commissioner, they won the battle, but they're not going to win the war," said Commissioner Chris Thomas. "So, I see it as a short-term victory for them. But, certainly this is not over."
What also didn't ebb was the "Wednesday morning quarterbacking" of the winning side as to what was perceived as the faulty strategy the losing municipalities adopted long before the real possibility of a school merger materialized.
"In my opinion they could have avoided all this just by going to charter schools," said Commissioner Sidney Chism. "It wouldn't have been any fight."
"It came from a historic Shelby County school system opposition to charter schools," Commissioner Ritz added. "If you remember, Memphis City Schools was approving some charter schools and not approving others. Shelby County was turning them all down. They didn't want anything to do with charter schools and that mindset controlled the thinking of those out there in the suburbs."
What about the fate of the other "biggest loser" of the lawsuit, the previously unstoppable juggernaut known as the Tennessee General Assembly? Though they are no doubt able, would they be willing to again play "genie in a bottle" for the suburbs with more crafted legislation regarding municipal school creation statewide?
"I don't believe Republicans across the state are going to want to do anything that's going to open up more school systems in those other counties across the state," Commissioner Ritz said.
As for the money generated by the sales tax increase passed by the suburbs in August, the municipal mayors say they are still setting that money aside for their own school systems. Mayors in Arlington, Bartlett and Collierville say they will use some of the funds for their legal fees in the municipal schools court battle.
"We knew we were in this for the long hall, that if 2013 didn't work 2014 was our next possibility," says Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman, "Even though we just kind of had this slight bump in the road, we're still using it; if it's attorney fees, whether it's for travel incurred, whether it's for staffing, whatever we need to do to bring it in and get it ready we're going to do."
Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner says they passed a resolution to assure his citizens that money generated by the half-cent sales tax increase will only be used for Collierville's municipal schools.
With one lawsuit now in their rearview mirror is it possible for the warring factions on the commission to finally find that "kumbaya" moment of total agreement?
"We need to come together and work together for what's best for those kids and their education and we have to work within the bounds of the law," Commissioner Wyatt Bunker said.
"When it gets to a point that you feel you got to call names and have confrontation that's not about serving the public, then you ought to give up your place as a commissioner," Commissioner Chism added. "I hope that ends without me calling any names."
FOX13 News reporters Lauren Lee, Sarah Bleau, and Les Smith, and Associated Press reporters Lucas Johnson II and Adrian Sainz contributed to this report.