When Federal Judge Samuel "Hardy" Mays drew the "short straw" in being assigned to judicially engineer the city and county school merger lawsuit, it was like trying to put the brakes on two "unstoppable" runaway trains. Number six. Number six. What's up? There's an unmanned train on the North bound track. It's under power? It's coming straight at us.
But, nearly two years and a half dozen open court hearings later, Mays now has the ability to clearly define the immediate paths for a Unified School Board or set six separate municipal school districts within Shelby County on their own tracks. Leading up to his upcoming ruling he's won universal praise for his work.
Unified School Board member Martavious Jones says, "He was a very deliberate judge and a very fair judge who's going to follow the letter of the law."
Since late September, Mays has been pondering the questions of whether two laws passed by the Tennessee legislature in 2011 and 2012 were constitutional. Did the legislature, in first lifting the previous ban on the creation of municipal school districts, do so, to in the following year, apply that law only to Shelby County as opposed to statewide? To Shelby County Commissioner and U of M law professor, Steve Mulroy, Mays could be weighing a couple of options.
"If Judge Mays strikes down only that one then they might be able to split off and have municipal schools districts in a year. If he strikes down both of them then they will never be able to have municipal school districts unless and until the state legislature passes a law that treats the whole state equally," says U of M Law Professor Steve Mulroy.
In court, the plaintiffs, led by attorneys representing the Shelby County Commission, argued in September, 14 minutes of culled video excerpts from the House Education Sub-Committee hearings amount to evidence showing legislators tailored the law to fit only Shelby County.
But, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, who attended a number of those hearings in person, says who the law applied to was made clear. "I know that on at least one occasion, one of the legislators said, 'yeah, this might just be for Shelby County' and someone else in the group said, 'well, let's ask the attorney for the school committee' and she said, 'No, No, this would be applicable to their places.'"
But, what if Mays rules in favor of the municipalities? Well, let's just say get ready for an even bumpier ride.
If he leaves the laws in place, then we move to this very big issue of racial re-segregation. "If you look at, demographically speaking, I don't think it was by design. But, you could have what would be racially segregated schools just based upon housing patterns," says Unified School Board member Martavius Jones.
"I can say unequivocally for Bartlett, if we were to have our own school system, the breakdown by race is going to reflect, in the fact it'll be a little higher in the minorities percentage-wise than our population simply because we have so many older white people," said McDonald.
Memphis Daily News reporter Bill Dries says, "If this goes to the federal constitutional questions, Judge Mays had said several times it's going to be like a school's desegregation case from the '60s or '70s."
A long and drawn out trial with issues of racial demographics, racial distribution and why unincorporated students could become pawns.
It could be a Pandora's Box not even the venerable Judge Mays would want to open.