msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/9/2011 4:10:42 PM ET 2011-08-09T20:10:42

Education groups must bring a plan on how to consolidate Memphis schools with those of its better-off Shelby County neighbors by Friday, says a federal judge.

District Judge Samuel Mays ruled Monday that the Memphis city school board acted legally when it surrendered its right to exist last December to force a merger with the smaller, more successful Shelby County school system, which sued to stop the merger.

Mays was scheduled to meet Tuesday with all the parties involved. The Shelby County board scheduled a special session Wednesday to consider its next steps, which could include an appeal.

The ruling paves the way to create a school system with 150,000 students in 2013, NBC station WMC reported.

Memphis City Schools, created in 1869, has 209 schools and 108,000 students. Shelby County Schools has 47,000 students in 52 schools.

The judge ordered the county school board to oversee the transition and to give Memphis proportional representation on the countywide board. The county had sued to block the merger.

Story: Tennessee schools dispute pits 'haves' against 'have-nots'

Voters approved the merger in March, but the county's federal lawsuit had been holding up the consolidation process.

The consolidation move triggered a heated debate about the fairness of merging two districts with different levels of academic achievement.

In his decision Mays also ruled valid a new state law, known as Norris-Todd, aimed at guiding the merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools with the appointment of a 21-member transition committee. Mays said consolidation must be completed in time for the beginning of the 2013-14 school year.

Just hours after the ruling was issued, Memphis City Schools Board members and Superintendent Kriner Cash worked to figure out what it means, WMC said.

"There is nothing here that says anybody other than teachers, and even they under certain circumstances, are going to maintain their employment," school board member Kenneth Whalum said.

David Pickler, the SCS board chairman for more than a decade and an opponent of consolidation, told Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that he would not "rule anything in or out at this point" in terms of appeals.

Pickler applauded the judge for ruling in favor of Norris-Todd and against a County Commission plan to appoint a new 25-member countywide board.

Proponents of the merger put much more weight on the fact that the 146-page ruling's most detailed sections explain why a countywide board must be constituted. Mays did rule that the county charter limits a county board to seven members.

"On every one of the most important points, Judge Mays agrees with us," said County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, merger proponent and a law professor at the University of Memphis. "There is a lot to like in the decision from the perspective of merger advocates."

Mays' decision did not address special districts.

The city district voted to disband after determining that a new Republican majority in the state Legislature could pass legislation long sought by Shelby County Schools to create a special school district, said Martavius Jones, president of the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners.

Such a district could create its own tax zone and potentially try to end its tax liability to the inner-city schools, he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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