MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that six Memphis suburbs cannot start public school systems, saying that any actions taken under a state law that initially cleared the way for the new districts are void.
U.S. District Judge Samuel Mays issued a 65-page ruling saying that the state law that allowed voters in the six Shelby County municipalities to decide if they wanted their own school districts violates the Tennessee Constitution because it applies only to one county.
Mays’ ruling said he would consider arguments on other aspects of the case next month. A trial scheduled for Jan. 3 on claims that the suburbs’ decision to seek their own school districts was made partly on racial grounds was continued.
Voters on Aug. 2 approved referendums to form school districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington. The suburbs want to break away from the Shelby County school district and avoid the planned merger between the larger, struggling, majority-black Memphis school system and the smaller, more successful, majority-white county system.
The state law that allowed for the vote — passed by the Republican-led General Assembly earlier this year — was challenged by the Shelby County Commission and the city of Memphis. They both want to preserve the merger set for 2013, with the six municipalities included in one consolidated school district with 150,000 students.
The county commission and the city of Memphis sued the state Education Department and the suburbs in order to stop the vote. Mays decided to rule after the vote, saying it was easier to nullify an election than to bar one.
The commission’s lawyers argued in a September trial that the state law violates the Tennessee Constitution’s ban on legislation that benefits only one county. Attorneys for the suburbs argued that the law could be applied to other counties, including Gibson and Carroll counties.
Both sides presented testimony related to population projections in the two counties.
Mays disagreed with the suburbs, saying in his ruling that the law “establishes a series of conditions that have no reasonable application, present or potential, to any other county.”
“The General Assembly did intend the bill to apply only to Shelby County,” Mays wrote.
The possibility of Shelby County having an additional six smaller school districts led to discussions about the cost of running so many school systems in one county and concerns about the fate of teachers currently employed by the existing school system.
Suburban voters had chosen to raise taxes in order to help pay for the new school districts.
Attorneys for the suburbs and the state can appeal the ruling.
Mays is also asking lawyers on both sides for new arguments, which are due next month. Those arguments would be related to a provision that would lift the statewide ban on the creation of new municipal school districts after the merger of the city and county school districts is completed in July.