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Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

City, school district on cusp of lawsuit settlement

If the Memphis City Council approves a proposal to settle a six-year-old school funding lawsuit between the city and Shelby County Schools, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Tuesday he plans to invest the city’s first payment of $6 million in the district’s Innovation Zone.

Hopson encouraged the school board Tuesday night to support the proposed settlement saying “a compromise has been reached, and it’s time to put the lawsuit behind us.”

The board took Hopson’s recommendation almost unanimously, with Chairwoman Teresa Jones abstaining because she works for the city.

Hopson and Memphis Mayor AC Wharton brokered the agreement over several months of conversations, with the final hashing out of a payment plan taking place over this past weekend, Hopson said.

But there’s one final hurdle the proposed lawsuit settlement must clear:  the city council. This could prove difficult since the city has challenged two court rulings that determined it underfunded Memphis City Schools by $57 million in the 2008-09 school year.

The 13-member council met Tuesday, shortly after learning, in a letter from Wharton, about the proposed settlement. The council didn’t take up the lawsuit issue. Its next meeting is Jan. 6. The Commercial Appeal reported discussions on the issue will continue on Jan. 8.

“The tricky thing with this proposal is that it requires everyone to be on board. The school board is on board, I’m on board, and Mayor Wharton is on board. Now it’s up to the city council to see if this proposal moves forward or not,” Hopson said during a post meeting interview with Chalkbeat Tennessee.

The agreement allows the city to pay the debt without raising taxes and provides the district with Memphis Police school resource officers and assumption of an $8 million debt the former Memphis City Schools incurred in 1998.

Under the payment plan, the schools would receive $32.7 million over a 13-year period with the first payment of $6 million due by Feb. 1, 2015. During the first three years, the city would make annual payments of $1.3 million and in fourth year through the 12th years of the plan, the city would pay $2.2 million.

“We strongly urge city council to put this behind us,” Hopson said.

This is not the first time Hopson has mentioned investing in the iZone. Before talks of a settlement were public, Hopson talked about combining some school buildings to provide iZone services and searching for expansion funding.

The iZone, is the district’s effort to turnaround low performing schools by giving them flexibility over their budgets, staffing, schedules, and programming. It has been funded through federal School Improvement Grants, or SIG money, which runs out in 2016.

It has proven successful so far with six of the 13 schools in the effort improving enough that they are no longer at risk for state intervention.

Word of how the money would be spend was not lost on Sharon Griffin, regional superintendent of the iZone.

“That’s good news, but I want more clarity about the details,” said Griffin after Tuesday’s meeting.  Griffin said the iZone schools are working on a plan for sustaining their work without additional funding, but that they also pursuing philanthropic money to support their work.