By Clay Bailey, Memphis Commercial Appeal
August 9, 2011

Bartlett and Collierville leaders are moving forward with studies for public school districts in their suburbs, believing a federal judge’s ruling this week opened the door for such a move.

But opponents of such districts contend that U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays didn’t address the matter in his decision Monday, leaving them as potential targets for legal challenges.

Mays’ long-awaited action regarding consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County schools states that the Norris-Todd bill passed in the last legislative session was constitutional. Among the bill’s provisions was removing restrictions on municipalities starting school systems.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald and Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner reiterated their interest Tuesday in starting school systems.

“For us, right now, the best scenario is finding a way to do our own municipal schools,” McDonald said.

“We want good schools,” Joyner said. “We’re going to do what we feel like we have to do to see that that quality of education that brought many families to Collierville and Germantown and Bartlett and other municipalities is protected.”

Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said Tuesday that she had not read Mays’ opinion and would reserve comment until she has studied it. Arlington Mayor Russell Wiseman did not take a position because he is not seeking re-election this year.

Some suburbs have been looking at the idea of starting their own municipal schools for months after the Memphis Board of Education voted to surrender the city schools charter, putting education in the lap of Shelby County Schools.

In the last legislative session, Sen. Mark Norris and Rep. Curry Todd, both R-Collierville, sponsored a bill outlining the transition to the combined system. Included in the legislation was language waiving restrictions on the formation of municipal and special school districts. Mays did not directly rule on whether those districts were constitutional.

McDonald and Joyner understand that their hopes could face legal challenges.

“I think municipal schools is probably our best (option),” McDonald said. “But, we’ve got a lot of steps to go through to see if that is realistic and doable.”

If municipalities moved forward, Memphis City Council attorney Allan Wade indicated a lawsuit might follow.

“That would be a great concern to my client and we would have to seriously consider an action we would take,” Wade said Tuesday.

Another big point is whether the county schools within the cities’ boundaries would be given to the towns. Suburban leaders contend that their citizens paid for the facilities through their property taxes.

MCS board president Martavius Jones said Tuesday that he would strongly oppose the transfer of school facilities to municipalities without a significant payment.

Jones, who will serve as a nonvoting member of the transition commission, said, “I’ll be like a tea partier on that — no compromise.”

However, even if the buildings become part of the cost, both McDonald and Joyner said there is support in their communities to increase taxes to pay for municipal school systems. Both see it as a drawing card for growth.

“We want the same quality of education that Shelby County Schools has been able to provide to the children who go to our schools,” the Collierville mayor said. “If we felt that was protected and that would continue, we would be satisfied with a new consolidated system.

“We just don’t think, at this point, that is going to happen.”

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