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Shelby County Suburbs Can't Ditch Memphis (Yet), Judge Rules

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki @jzubrzycki

Oh, mama, can this really be the end? Shelby County, Tenn., residents who had hoped to avoid a merger with the struggling 105,000-student Memphis school district have the Memphis blues again, after a judge ruled earlier this week that they can't vote to start their own school systems. We reported on the plans to create independent districts in the summer. The six suburbs had hoped to have their independent districts up and running by the 2013-14 school year, the same year the merger is set to take effect.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Mays ruled on Tuesday that a state law that would have allowed voters in Arlington, Bartlett, Colliersville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington to vote to create independent school districts violates the state constitution. The ruling came after the city of Memphis and the Shelby County Commission challenged the law.

From the Memphis Commercial Appeal:

"Mays wrote that the legislative debate over Chapter 905 clearly showed Republican state legislators intended for it to apply only to Shelby County. That makes the law local in effect and unconstitutional since it did not include a provision gaining countywide approval.

"There is in the history a sense of a wink and a nod, a candid discussion of the bill's purpose occasionally blurred by a third-party correction," wrote Mays, who served as legal counsel and then chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist. "The history is clear, however, that the bill never would have passed had it not been intended to apply only to Shelby County."

Mays also agreed with the commission and Memphis that evidence clearly showed that the laws could not be said to rationally apply to other counties in the state, no matter the suburban argument that explosive, unpredictable population spikes in other counties could alter circumstances in the future.

The judge deferred ruling on several other issues that affect the school districts, but this decision makes it likely that next year, at least, the region will see a consolidated district. Here is some more reporting from the Commercial Appeal on the judge's ruling, and some great background on some of the other legal issues that are still in question in Tennessee. The judge has asked lawyers to submit new arguments by the end of December on another state law that would lift a statewide ban on creating new municipal school districts.

We wrote in this blog about the 2011 vote in which Memphis residents decided to join their school system with Shelby County's, and about Shelby County's quest for taxing authority and "special school district" status. Even outside the legal battles, a merger between the two very different school systems won't be simple. A merged Shelby County-Memphis district would serve 150,000-students, and the search is already under way for a superintendent for that district.

Though this ruling is favorable for proponents of the merger, it's unlikely to be the end: WMC-TV and the Jackson Sun report that the advocates for new municipal districts in the suburbs are disappointed, but undeterred.

Finances were the stated impetus behind the disputes in Shelby County, but the issue is certainly racially charged, with some in Memphis alleging that the suburban Shelby County voters wanted to avoid dealing with the problems of the mostly black city district and create mostly white, segregated systems, the AP reports. Representatives for the county denied those claims, saying they want to have smaller districts that can meet their communities' needs. The Atlantic featured a piece earlier this year about the ghosts of segregation in Memphis, but also speculated that the merger could lead to the end of some positive reform efforts. (The comments on that online story are full of back and forth about the motives for and implications of the change.)

Meanwhile, a special state-run school district called the Achievement School District is running six Memphis schools in an attempt to improve their performance. Initial results show the district has a lot of work to do.

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