published Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Judge dismisses lawsuit over suburban schools in Memphis area

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed to stop six Memphis suburbs from starting their own public school systems.

The Commercial Appeal reports the judge issued the order at the close of business on Monday after reviewing an agreement reached between the Shelby County Schools Board and the six municipalities. U.S. District Judge Samuel Mays said after reviewing the terms of the agreement, he found it "reasonable."

The suburban districts agreed to pay financial considerations to the county to cover retirement benefits in exchange for receiving buildings to form their respective school systems.

The newspaper reports the ruling ends the legal battle over education in Shelby County that began when the lawsuit was filed in 2012.

The suit was initiated when the suburbs of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington decided to break away from a merger between Memphis City Schools and the Shelby County school district and start individual school systems.

The lawsuit challenged the validity of any vote to approve new school systems in Shelby County under state law. It also claimed the suburbs wanted to avoid the merger on racial grounds, citing the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Voters approved the new school districts, but Mays ruled the law that allowed the vote was unconstitutional. The state Legislature changed the law, allowing the municipalities to vote again, and residents approved municipal school systems for a second time.

The second vote came too late for the suburbs to start their school systems for the 2013-2014 school year. The suburbs are currently part of the merged system, which has about 150,000 students in its first year of operation.

The suburbs have hired superintendents and could have their school systems up and running in time for the 2014-2015 school year.

Suburban officials were excited and relieved by the ruling.

"Hallelujah," Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said when he answered the phone in Washington, where he is attending the National League of Cities meeting. "That's my response."

Shelby County Schools board member Chris Caldwell said he was pleased with the resolution.

"It's resolved and now we can focus on student achievement and moving ahead," he said.

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz, who helped with negotiations, said Monday night he was "tickled to death" at the ruling and that "all of our disputes are over."

"Everybody had to give a little. Obviously, the suburbs are moving fast with their systems and it helps that the agreements are approved so we don't have to take steps backward," he said.

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