Shelby County Commission chairman Sidney Chism has asked the county Election Commission not to place the elections for members to the six municipal school boards on the Nov. 6 ballot, citing a state law that allows no more than six school districts in the county.
Chism made the request in a letter to Robert Meyers, Election Commission chairman.
"If in fact it's unconstitutional for them to have more than six school districts, then we need to know so they can investigate before they put it on the ballot," Chism said. "They should be able to find out if it's legal for them to have it on the ballot or not."
The County Commission and the Memphis City Council are involved in a federal lawsuit challenging the creation of municipal school districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown Lakeland and Millington, which were approved by voters in Aug. 2 referendums. The lawsuit questions the constitutionality of the law that was drafted to allow for the municipal districts' existence. It also alleges that the creation of the mostly white municipal school districts discriminates against African-Americans.
The votes followed the decision to merge Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2013.
Chism could have had this latest aspect of contention concerning the municipal schools included in that lawsuit.
"Then I'd have to pay the lawyers," he said. "Let them pay."
The Election Commission's lawyers have told Meyers that the Election Commission does not have the authority to do what Chism has asked.
"I appreciate essentially the courtesy the chairman extended us by sending us that letter, but I just think the fact is we don't have the power to do what he's requesting us to do," Meyers said.
According to state law,counties with populations of more than 25,000, "shall have no more than six (6) school districts," including a county district, city district or special school districts.
The issue has been raised in briefs filed in advance of the Sept. 4 trial challenging the validity of the referendums. The legal skirmish concerns what constitutes the "creation" or "establishment" of a new school district.
The commission and council say the Aug. 2 referendums resulted in the creation of six new school districts, giving Shelby County eight school districts while Memphis City Schools is still in operation this academic year.
But attorneys for the suburbs argue that the referendums only authorize "preliminary steps toward establishing" a school district and don't violate the law. The potential problem with a legal limit on school districts is no surprise to municipal school supporters.
"We knew that the law said that," said County Commission member Chris Thomas.
They also knew that if all of the municipal schools were approved on the same day, which happened Aug. 2, a decision on the number would be required. But Chism should not have involved the Election Commission, Thomas said. "It's just disappointing and disheartening that Chism is trying to do more things to hurt the municipal schools," Thomas said. "That's not his decision. We've already got court stuff going on. That's something that can be decided there."
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