Municipal Schools
6:07 pm
Thu September 20, 2012

Testimony Over In Municipal Schools Trial

All sides in the lawsuit agreed to waive their right to a jury trial and let U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays decide the case by himself.

Now that the courtroom phase of the trial is over, it will be up to Mays to decide whether or not the suburbs outside of Memphis can open their own municipal school districts. If he decides that they can, then it will also up to him to decide when.

Of course, all six of the suburbs outside of Memphis are already well on their way to opening separate schools. All six passed municipal school referendums August 2, and all six have school board elections scheduled for November 6. Judge Mays could put a stop to those elections and throw out the results of the referendums, or he could allow the suburbs’ plans to continue.

Central to the case is a state senate bill that passed the legislature this year, and the lengthy debate that preceded its becoming law. Senate Bill 2908 was sponsored by State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris, of Collierville, and it is informally known as “Norris 2.0.” In 2011, Norris sponsored another bill which lifted the statewide ban on new municipal school districts here in Shelby County. Norris pushed this second bill through the state legislature after the Tennessee Attorney General ruled that under Norris’ first bill, the suburbs outside of Memphis could not hold referendums on municipal schools, or do any other planning for separate schools, until after Memphis and Shelby County Schools merge in August of 2013.

Lawyers for the Shelby County Commission and the Memphis City Council argued to the judge that Norris wrote this law to apply only to Shelby County, and thus it should be thrown out (under the Tennessee Constitution it is illegal to pass a law that only applies to one place.)

But lawyers for the suburbs outside of Memphis argued that the law could apply in other counties, too.

Norris’ law is written to take effect only when a special school district merges with a county school district and when that merger doubles the size of the county district.

Right now, the Memphis City Schools is the only special school district big enough to trigger the law. But lawyers for the suburbs argue the law could possibly apply in Carroll, Gibson, Henry, Weakley, and Scott counties in the future, if areas of those counties continue to grow.

“So, it’s kind of ironic that this case is crucial to the future of municipal school districts here in Shelby County, but a good part of the information that Mays has to look through has nothing to do with the school systems here,” said Senior Reporter for the Memphis Daily News Bill Dries. “It’s all about the structure of school systems and the school-age population elsewhere in the state.”

An expert witness for the suburbs, professor at Ball State University Michael Hicks testified that other counties may grow in such a way that the law would apply to them, too.

But an expert witness called by lawyers for the Shelby County Commission, professor at University of California Riverside David Swanson testified that was “so unlikely as to be virtually impossible.”

In addition to the expert testimony, the judge will also weigh hours of debates on the floor of the state legislature that center around the bill.