Shelby Co. School Board Files Federal Lawsuit to Stop Consolidation

Shelby Co. School Board Files Federal Lawsuit to Stop Consolidation

Local and state Republicans, including the Govenor Haslam, delivered a one-two punch Friday in the school consolidation showdown.
MEMPHIS, TN - Local and state Republicans, including the governor, delivered a one-two punch in the school showdown. 

Governor Bill Haslam signed the Norris bill into law on Friday morning, delaying Memphis City and Shelby County school consolidation for at least two years, if and when it's approved by city voters in a special election.

A short time after the governor's action, the Shelby County School Board filed a lawsuit in federal court to halt the school merger.

"What we're doing at this point," SCS board chairman David Pickler tells abc24.com, "we're asking a federal court to a look at these issues.  We believe there are some very strong constitutional issues that have been impacted."

The Shelby County School Board filed the lawsuit against the Memphis City School Board, the Memphis City Council, the City of Memphis, along with the state and federal departments of education and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The suit accuses city leaders of breaking the 14th amendment rights of county voters by not allowing them a say in the charter surrender referendum.  It also alleges that city leaders are violating the civil rights of city school children.

"We believe the actions of the school board and the city council to approve the surrender of the charter," says Pickler, "deprives the children of MCS of their free and available public education."

Memphis City Councilman Jim Strickland, also an attorney, is not surprised the council's vote to give up the charter is being challenged.

"There is a chance," he says, "what we did Thursday is not legal under law.  I'm disapointed it's gotten to this point, lawsuits back and forth.  And it's also disappointing, the tone of the debate."

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton on Friday, was feeling burned by Nashville, stunned that Governor Haslam signed the Norris bill into law so quickly, without any dialogue with him or his administration.  The law, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris of Collierville, the senate majority leader, prevents school consolidation for several years while allowing a planning process.
 
"It appears to me," says Mayor Wharton, "it's an elaborate breathing period or gestation period in which to get your special school district legislation together."

The county school board's desire to seek special school district status, freezing its boundaries to future annexation or consolidation, while potentially lowering the funding for city schools, is the main reason the city school board gave up its charter.

Wharton is also one of the brightest legal minds in the city, having served as Shelby County's top public defender for years.  The county school board's federal lawsuit, not  unexpected.

"I've said all along this matter is going to end up in the courts," Mayor Wharton tells abc24.com.  "I'm not surprised by that.  I'm sure they'll be a bunch of other lawsuits."

And with lawsuit number one now officially filed, and more to come in the weeks leading up to the March 8th referendum, the biggest question at the moment?  Who's in charge of Memphis City Schools?

"That's unclear," says Chairman Pickler.  "It is our position that the actions of the city council last night were without legal merit.  We believe MCS continues to exist as it has since 1869."

Mayor Wharton's office is also saying it's unclear who's in charge of MCS.  The mayor's spokesperson referred abc24.com to City Council Attorney Allan Wade for clarification.

"It is the Shelby County Schools' responsibility right now," Wade says.  "They can shirk their responsibility all they want, but they have the obligation to do what's necessary to take control."

MCS Superintendent Kriner Cash was not available for comment on this story.  His spokesperson says Dr. Cash is on vacation, and has been since last Friday, but wouldn't say if Cash is in town or out of town. 

Cash's contract pays him $250,000 if the MCS district is no more, and it frees him up to go work someplace else.

A date to hear the Shelby County School Board's complaint in federal court has not been set.  A judge will likely be assigned to the case on Monday, February 14th.

The March 8th MCS charter surrender referendum is still scheduled to take place, and city leaders encourage Memphians to get out and vote.



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