MEMPHIS, Tenn. (CN) – The Memphis City Board of Education’s “hasty, irrational and unilateral effort to immediately surrender its public school system charter” will deny more than 100,000 Memphis City students a free public education, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the Shelby County Board of Education.
Last week, the Memphis City Council last week approved the board of education’s Dec. 20 decision to unilaterally surrender its charter. The Shelby County School System is legally obligated to take on operation of Memphis public schools, part of a special school district that has operated in the county limits for more than 150 years.
Racial overtones surround the debate because Memphis City schools serve mostly black students and the population in Shelby County is mostly white.
Shelby filed suit on Feb. 11, one day after the city council vote. That same day, newly elected Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill approved by the state Senate to delay the merger for two and a half years if voters approve it in a referendum on March 8.
The Memphis City Board of Education says a 1961 Private Act gives it the authority to dissolve and surrender its charter with city council approval.
In its lawsuit the Shelby County Board of Education argues that it does not have the money or resources to take on the struggling Memphis school system.
Even if the Memphis City Board of Education has rights under the 1961 Private Act to dissolve and surrender, Shelby says there is no Tennessee law that “authorizes a winding up and/or liquidation period after the Memphis City Schools’ charter is surrendered.”
When the Memphis City Council voted to approve the surrender of the charter, it “expressly admitted the complete absence of legislative authority to create ‘a post charter surrender winding up period,’ yet it nonetheless, unilaterally and without proper legal authority, purported to create from whole cloth a post surrender wind up period and a purported plan of dissolution and consolidation for a school system that no longer exists because of its own unilateral and unprecedented act of dissolving and surrendering its charter in lieu of following established statutory authority for the orderly transfer of its assets to its successor,” according to the complaint.
“Pursuant to Tennessee law, when a special school district ceases to operate a public school system, the vacuum created by the exiting school system’s withdrawal is required to be filled by the county board of education for the county in which the special school system is located – here the Shelby County Schools,” the lawsuit argues. “The Memphis City Schools and the Memphis City Council have failed and refused to follow any such procedures and have created, thereby, a chaotic and dangerous vacuum by ending the legal foundation for the operation of the public schools of the City of Memphis.”
Shelby says that there must be a transition plan before it assumes operation of Memphis public schools, and that it simply does not have the money or resources.
“Accordingly, the children of the city of Memphis are at grave risk that their civil rights to free public educations are being or will imminently be violated, through no fault of either the children of Memphis or the plaintiff,” Shelby claims. “Unless the court intercedes and declares the rights and obligations of the parties to this suit, over 100,000 students will not receive a free public education or the accompanying benefits of a myriad of state and federal programs, all because the Memphis Board of Education, the Memphis City Council and the city of Memphis have refused to act in a reasonable and responsible manner.”
According to local Memphis news station, WMC-TV, Memphis made the drastic move to surrender after Shelby County school leaders discussed forming their own special school district in an effort to sever ties with the city schools.
WMC-TV reports: “If county schools become a special school district, city schools could lose money. Memphis city property taxes could also increase by as much as 55 cents. If city schools surrender their charter, the county would take in both school systems and taxes could increase for county residents.”
Along with Memphis, the city board of education and the city council, Shelby also sued the Tennessee Department of Education and its commissioner, Patrick Smith, the U.S. Department of Education, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder.
The lawsuit charges them with violating the students’ 14th Amendment Rights, the School Security Act, and the Disabilities in Education Act. It also asks that the 1961 Private Act be declared unconstitutional because it does not meet the requirements of the Tennessee Constitution.
Shelby is represented by Lawrence Giordano and Samuel Jackson, both of Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop in Nashville.