MEMPHIS, Tenn. - A federal judge on Thursday decided to allow residents of six Memphis suburbs to vote on forming city school districts, but he left open the option of voiding the election later.
Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington are seeking to form their own public school systems and avoid becoming part of a combined Memphis-Shelby County system upon a scheduled 2013 merger. The six municipalities, which have a combined population of about 171,000, are currently part of the Shelby County Schools system but want to break away.
A state law passed this year allowed the municipalities to schedule the vote to form their own school systems. But the Shelby County Commission sued to stop the vote, arguing that the state law violates the Tennessee constitution.
U. S. District Court Judge Samuel "Hardy" Mays ruled after a day-long hearing Thursday that the referendums can continue and he will decide the law's constitutionality later. Early voting for the Aug. 2 election starts Friday, and Mays noted some absentee ballots have been cast.
Mays said he did not want to rush a decision on the validity of the law, adding that it was better "not to enjoin an election but to second guess it."
"The more I think about it, the more restraint is counseled here," Mays said.
The municipalities, located east of Memphis, are seeking to avoid the merger between the larger, majority-black Memphis school system and the smaller, majority-white Shelby County school district. A transitional planning commission is working on details of the merger, but that plan could face major adjustments should the municipalities get their own school systems.
In their July 26 complaint, county commissioners argued that the municipalities' school districts would be majority-white and that race is a reason that they want their own systems. They assert that those who sought the elections are discriminating against black residents.
In their written response, the municipalities said allegations of racial discrimination were unfounded. Thursday's hearing didn't deal with that claim.
Instead it looked into the constitutionality of the new state statute that cleared the way for the suburbs to purse referendums and school board elections this year.
The county commission's attorneys contended that the law is invalid because it amounts to special legislation that can apply to only one county, a violation of the Tennessee constitution.
"That bill was designed to apply only to Shelby County," said Leo Bearman, attorney for the county commission. "Are we going to torture the intent of the Tennessee constitution?"
Bearman also said the commission's rights have been violated because the legislative body has not been allowed to vote on the new districts
Supporters of the new school districts say that the state law could apply to counties outside Shelby County, making it constitutional. Attorneys for the state and the municipalities argue that the law could apply to Gibson and Carroll counties, and Mays said he was going to look into whether the law applies to Henry and Scott counties as well.
Tom Cates, the lawyer for the municipalities, said the county was trying to interfere with the workings of the suburban cities and towns.
"There can hardly be more of an interference than to stop an election," Cates said.
During the hearing, Shelby County election commission lawyer John Ryder said the election has already begun with absentee, overseas, military and nursing home ballots having been sent out, and some ballots having been received.
There is some concern that the Memphis-Shelby County school merger process will be derailed by the defection of the six municipalities from the county system. Mays has approved a consent decree that lays out the legal basis for the merger.
"If the state legislature could come back and undo a consent decree, we would still be in segregation today," said Allan Wade, the attorney for the Memphis City Council, which opposed the vote.
Should the suburban voters approve the new school districts, then planning would begin for the systems to be operational. But that process could end quickly if Mays invalidates the vote after the election.