Getting to Business

Countywide school board gets down to details year into task

By Bill Dries

A year after they took the oath of office along with other members of the new countywide school board, David Reaves and Billy Orgel got a brusque introduction to each other.

Countywide school board members are about to start making decisions on merger recommendations with the first votes at a Thursday meeting. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

They had never met. But Reaves had heard about Orgel.

Orgel and Reaves generally agree on the terms of the encounter.

“Why do you send your child to White Station? You don’t live in that neighborhood,” Reaves greeted Orgel.

“It’s a good school,” Orgel replied.

Just a few weeks later, it was Reaves who nominated Orgel to be the first chairman of the countywide school board.

The school board could start taking the first votes Thursday, Sept. 27, on the 172 recommendations from the consolidation planning commission. The October agenda, marking the 23-member board’s first year in office, will probably see votes on even more merger recommendations.

In that year, the board members are still three distinct groups – the former Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools boards, and the seven-member countywide board that will be the pared-down school board effective with the merger in August.

Kevin Woods, one of the appointees who took the oath earlier this month to remain on the board post-merger, likened the last year to “standing in the middle of two worlds.”

While the political seams of what are three school boards still show, those in the groups that have been stitched together have a year’s worth of shared experiences in what has been a new experience for all of them.

“I didn’t know a lot when I got on the school board,” Orgel said.

He remains the board chairman for a second one-year term.

His struggle has been with the very different meeting cultures of the two school systems. Orgel has sought to bring marathon city board meetings closer to the length of county school system meetings. The task was easier said than done because of different rules the two school systems have about which purchases and contract items must go to the board for approval.

“I love five-hour meetings now,” board member Teresa Jones joked after she took the oath of office this month.

A few weeks later she challenged Orgel for the chairmanship of the board and fell one vote short. She was instead elected vice chairman.

Reaves had been a member of the former Shelby County Schools board for about a year when he became part of the political merger that has preceded the schools merger.

Less than a year later, Reaves’ additional year of experience didn’t offer much preparation for a hostile audience of parents at Bolton High School. They wanted to know what the schools merger would mean for their children at the school that sits in unincorporated Shelby County.

Reaves, as the moderator, had to repeatedly say he didn’t know because the decisions hadn’t been made. He said it without any spin or trying to tell them what they might want to hear. The crowd, including some who probably voted for him, didn’t like the answer.

“When you get into public life, it’s not a promotion,” Reaves said this month after taking the oath following his election to the school board that will remain once the two school systems are merged. “It’s a privilege.”

Reaves ran for the old county board because he admits, “there’s something you want to fix.” But the schools merger wasn’t the fix or the problem to be fixed that he had in mind.

At the one-year mark, the board lost two of the seven appointed by the Shelby County Commission.

Vanecia Kimbrow opted not to run for election in the Aug. 2 elections for the seven seats.

“It was a dynamic experience, very challenging but very insightful,” Kimbrow said at the end of her tenure.

By her judgment, the board found its stride about six months in and is primed to begin giving shape to the merged school system to come.

“August 2013 is 10 months away. They don’t have any time at this point to tarry,” she said. “They’ve got to get to the business of creating a world-class education system. They have what they need.”