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VOL. 128 | NO. 51 | Thursday, March 14, 2013

School Board Expansion Advanced

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioners advanced in Wednesday, March 13, committee sessions a general plan to restructure the countywide school board.

But the plan to turn the 23-member board into a 13-member board on Sept. 1, instead of the seven-member board it is now scheduled to become on that date, is far from complete. And lots of legal questions remain about the details.

The new set of district lines for a 13-member school board is also not an exact match of the district lines to be used by the Shelby County Commission in the 2014 county elections.

Having the same district lines as the commission was the initial reason some commissioners advocated a set of 13 single-member districts for the school board.

Commission chairman Mike Ritz said the proposed district map for a 13-member countywide school board was tweaked by the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Planning and Development to avoid having incumbent school board members Billy Orgel and Kevin Woods in the same district and incumbents Chris Caldwell and Teresa Jones in the same district.

“It’s not exactly the County Commission map,” Ritz said. “We moved some blocks around.”

The shifts were designed to avoid any legal complications from shortening the terms the seven incumbent board members were elected to in 2012. Those seven incumbents become the entire county school board effective Sept. 1, when the nine members of the old Memphis City Schools board and the seven members of the old Shelby County Schools board go off what is now a 23-member board.

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker questioned why the commission couldn’t agree to expand the school board to 13-members and use the exact boundaries for county commission districts. In that scenario, the commission would not appoint six new school board members to begin serving Sept. 1. The commission would instead wait for the county general election in August 2014 for voters to begin electing school board members to the seats in staggered terms.

Bunker sought to delay any action in committee on the resolution to expand the school board for two weeks. But that was voted down in the committee session that included nine of the 13 commissioners.

The committee then voted to recommend the resolution, putting it on the agenda for a vote Monday by the full commission. But Ritz indicated he will move for at least a two-week delay then.

The delay is to give attorneys for the commission time to vet the proposal with U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

Mays in a 2011 consent decree agreed to by all sides in the lawsuit over the schools merger ruled the commission has the power to expand the school board to up to 13 members.

But in a later status conference, Shelby County Attorney Kelly Rayne said Mays told the parties he would have to approve the terms of any expansion of the school board as part of the consent decree.

She also said Mays did not specify then whether the commission would have to pass a resolution or an ordinance to make such a change.

A resolution takes one vote with a simple majority of the commission. An ordinance takes three readings and the proposal in an ordinance must pass on the third reading with a nine-vote, two-thirds majority.

“I think the community would expect us to expand the school board,” Ritz said.

Bunker, a former Shelby County Schools board member, initially favored such an expansion. But Bunker said he is now having second thoughts after seeing the problems the 23-member school board has had in reaching a consensus on terms of the schools merger.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be better for us,” he said. “Not only do they have a lot of decisions to make, they have a lot of critical decisions to make.”

Ritz countered that most of those decisions will be made by the current board before the Sept. 1 transition to a smaller body – whether it is seven members or 13 members.

County Commissioner Heidi Shafer was among those on the commission who questioned whether the commission would have to draw a new set of school board districts if suburban leaders are able to form separate municipal school districts in the county’s six suburban towns and cities.

That is one of the legal points the commission would seek guidance on.

Shafer said she couldn’t see the suburbs being represented on the school board if they aren’t part of the consolidated school system and have school systems with their own elected boards. But if the suburbs instead were allowed to form charter school districts for those cities and towns, a case could be made for school board representation, she added, because it would be a contract with the countywide school board.

Commissioner Terry Roland said the commission should wait until the Tennessee Legislature acts on bills that would permit the formation of municipal school districts as well as charter school districts.

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