Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Mayor Lee Harris’ private meetings do not have to be noticed to the public.
A proposed agreement settling the required transfer of three Germantown-area schools from Memphis-Shelby County Schools would include a $72.5 million investment of county funds toward a new replacement high school for Germantown High School.
The sale of the building is expected to generate additional tens of millions in funds, according to the proposed agreement.
The proposal rests on the county commission's agreement of the funds, though in recent years the body has not fully filled capital funding asks made by MSCS. The proposed agreement does not make clear a timeline over which the capital funds may be disbursed, though it calls for a "multi-year transition" for students and families.
The proposed agreement was announced Monday by Shelby County government, weeks before the end-of-year deadline for an agreement outlined in new state law and apparently under the threat of lawsuits. No agreement document was included in the announcement.
“A lot of people really worked hard to come to a consensus and build a framework everyone could live with,” Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said in an interview with The Commercial Appeal. “This was a real point in time where we worked really hard together, trying to see if we could in good faith put a solution on the table that responded to the state law and gave the families who are affected a path forward without going to where we usually go as a community, which is years and years of litigation and arriving nowhere.”
Beyond talk of the extended transition timeline, details of the transition for students and families at Germantown Elementary, Middle and High School were not part of the announcement.
The new state law requiring the transfer of the buildings dredges up decisions made nearly a decade ago under a federal lawsuit paving the way for the creation of the six municipal districts in Shelby County.
The new state law could have opened up the suit again, Harris said.
Without specifying who specifically threatened to reopen the suit, Harris said the threat was on the table. He told The Commercial Appeal threats of litigation have come “from all sides.”
The lawsuit included an agreement specifying which school buildings would go from the merged city-county district to each municipality. It is the position of MSCS, and has been for years, that the matter of the three schools was settled by the federal judge's recognition of the agreement describing which schools would go to the creation of Germantown Municipal School District.
According to a press release, the agreement was reached Nov. 29, a week ago, and before MSCS presented a status update to county commissioners on the issue of the required transfers of the schools. Later that evening, MSCS officials said the possibility of a lawsuit without an agreement was still on the table.
MSCS, the City of Germantown and Germantown Municipal Schools mutually agreed on the proposal, according to the release, which was scheduled for presentation to commissioners during a closed-door executive session Monday.
The press release included statements in support from Harris, Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo, county commission chair Mickell M. Lowery and vice chair Miska Clay Bibbs, MSCS Interim Superintendent Toni Williams and MSCS chair Althea Greene. No one from the Germantown school district was quoted.
Shelby County Commissioners will have to vote on the agreement in order for the funding to be available for a new school. It is unclear how the funding approval would impact other capital requests from the school district, which have recently included a new high school in Frayser, but Harris said he still wants to build a high school there.
Lowery, in his statement, said the commission was "eager" to support students.
If approved, the $72.5 million from Shelby County would be disbursed over two years. The first allotment of $36.25 million would be added to the current year's budget. The second allotment would be placed in the capital budget for fiscal year 2024, which has not yet been approved, Harris said.
Lowery said he believes the funding can be done without a tax increase.
The commission's vote, as well as votes from MSCS, the city of Germantown and the Germantown school district are scheduled for next week, according to the press release. County commissioners will need to hold a special called meeting in order to vote on Dec. 14.
The dates for those meetings, according to the county, are:
Dec. 12: Vote by the City of Germantown’s Board of Alderman
Dec. 14: Vote by the Shelby County Commission
Dec. 15: Vote by Memphis-Shelby County Schools
Dec. 15: Vote by the Germantown Municipal School Board
As part of the agreement, the City of Germantown will pay $5 million to MSCS for the Germantown Elementary and Middle School. The City of Germantown, as part of the agreement, would also assist MSCS in selling Germantown High School, which is not included by name in the release, to "close the funding gap" needed for a new school.
On whether the agreement relies on the final sale of the building, Harris said, "The agreement is contingent upon everything happening, all the parts of it."
At a price tag between $110 and $125 million for a new school, according to the district, the private sale would need to generate tens of millions in funds. The county, in its Monday release, put the price tag of the new school lower, at $100 million.
The agreement comes after mediation efforts led by Harris.
There were two formal mediation sessions with all parties, on Nov. 23 and Nov. 29, according to Harris. Those involved included Clay Bibbs and Lowery (who were rotated out so as not to be in the meeting at the same time), Palazzolo, Germantown Superintendent Jason Manuel, MSCS Chief of Staff Patrice Thomas, Williams and “many, many, many lawyers.”
None of the meetings were noticed to the public.
There were also numerous one-on-one meetings held, Harris said, including with other county commissioners.
Monday's executive session of the commission was also held behind closed doors.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said "if the purpose of the meeting is to hear and discuss a proposed agreement between three government entities on a controversial issue, then absolutely, yes, this should be a meeting held in public."
The Tennessee Open Meetings Act allows private meetings between multiple members of a governing body and their attorney concerning "pending or threatened litigation." Any discussion by the members on what action to take must, however, be open to the public.
"Holding a closed meeting to have substantial discussions and then, a public meeting, to simply rubber-stamp what you discussed in a closed meeting would be a violation of the open meetings law," Fisher said.
"The Shelby County Attorney’s Office regularly meets to present settlement agreements, including a briefing by counsel to the Commission," said County Attorney Marlinee Iverson.
Some commissioners Monday expressed disappointment at how they were informed of the proposed agreement, saying they should have been told prior to any media outlet receiving the news.
“I was really stunned by this document, and quite frankly I was disappointed and I’m just trying to figure out what to do with the trust here now,” said Commissioner Henri Brooks, adding that she wants to be able to give information to her constituents about any agreement.
Lowery agreed that it would have been better if the news release, which came from the mayor’s office, framed the agreement as one suggested by the mayor’s administration, not something “Shelby County Government will do.”
“Because we’re Shelby County Government and we have not done anything,” Lowery said, referring to the need for a vote on the $72 million.
The news release did not state information about Lucy Elementary School, a fourth MSCS school impacted by the law. The district will need to reach an agreement by the end of the year with Millington officials or follow the transfer and sale procedures outlined in state law.
In a statement to The Commercial Appeal, Greene of the MSCS board said, "We look forward to continuing talks with Millington leaders for an equally positive outcome for the 350 members of our Lucy Elementary School family."
Laura Testino covers education and children's issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at email@example.com or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Agreement over Germantown schools proposes $72M toward replacement high school