Yard signs urging suburban residents to create their own, separate municipal school districts, rather than send their children to a merged Memphis & Shelby County schools, poke from well-manicured lawns just outside the Memphis city limits. One sign reads simply, “Yes! Bartlett Schools.” Referendums are scheduled for August 2 in all six Shelby County suburbs.
But lawyers for the Shelby County Commission don’t want that question put to voters. On Tuesday they sued to stop it. The lawyers are arguing that the creation of municipal school districts outside of Memphis would violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits racial discrimination, as well as two sections of the Tennessee Constitution.
“Race was a motivating factor behind the enactment of the Shelby County Municipal Schools Act,” reads one part of the lawyers’ complaint.
Municipal districts, if formed, will be majority white, whereas the merged Memphis & Shelby County school district will be majority African-American.
“Use of municipal boundaries to define the new school districts is simply a proxy for racial discrimination,” reads another section of the complaint.
But not everyone on the Shelby County Commission agrees with Tuesday’s legal action. In a press release sent out today commissioner Terry Roland railed, “I am considering bringing action against the County Commission for violating the rights of the citizens of District 4.” District four, Roland’s district, is the suburb of Millington.
“The commission is divided on this question of municipal school districts, but a majority on the commission have voted, and voted last year, actually, to pursue a legal position in court,” said Senior Reporter for the Memphis Daily News Bill Dries. “The attorneys in this case, and similar cases, operate on the rules that the attorneys are empowered to do what they think is in the best interest of their clients.”
The lawyers for the Shelby County Commission filed their complaint as a motion added to a lawsuit brought by the Shelby County Board of Education over school consolidation. That suit was settled after a ruling by federal court Judge Samuel Mays and an August 2011 multi-party agreement. But the judge, and the agreement, steered clear of making decisions on many of the issues surrounding municipal school districts.
“He [Judge Mays] has to make a decision,” Dries said.