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VOL. 129 | NO. 37 | Monday, February 24, 2014

Commission Takes Up School Board Redistricting

By Bill Dries

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A majority of Shelby County Commissioners seems to agree that the Shelby County Schools board should be smaller than the 13 members it will become with the August school board elections if the commission takes no further action.

And a majority on the commission seems to agree that the school board should not include representation for the six suburban towns and cities, which last year elected their own school boards for their separate school systems.

But that’s where the vote counting starts to become difficult going into the Monday, Feb. 24, meeting, for which the agenda includes a redistricting resolution requiring nine votes to pass.

The commission meets at 1:30 p.m. at the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, 160 N. Main St. Follow the meeting @tdnpols, www.twitter.com/tdnpols.

All five plans drafted so far are unprecedented in the set of district lines drawn for the commission, the Memphis City Council, the Tennessee Legislature or the U.S. Congressional districts in Tennessee in the last 40 years.

BAILEY

A common feature of all five plans is single districts in several unconnected pieces.

RITZ

For instance, District 3 in Commissioner Walter Bailey’s nine-district plan includes both sides of Millington and south of Bartlett, Lakeland and Arlington, with the three parcels not connected.

The plan on the agenda is another nine-member plan that includes in District 4 a section of South Cordova that would otherwise be in the larger District 5 that is both north of Bartlett, Lakeland and Arlington, and south of them as well.

Commissioner Mike Ritz argued that it was for two reasons, starting with the South Cordova residents attending the three Germantown Schools that will remain part of Shelby County Schools after the demerger of the unified system.

“To the extent that those people continue to go to those schools, it would be appropriate for Kevin Woods, who’s got most of the people who will be going to those three Germantown schools … to put them in his district so they have one commissioner,” Ritz said referring to the current school board chairman who currently represents the area. Bailey’s plan includes the same feature.

Ritz’s plan has six districts with majority black populations. Bailey’s plan has seven districts with majority black populations.

That difference was critical in the debate in committee last week.

Bailey said his map is simply the result of taking four districts that would represent the six suburban towns and cities out of the current 13-member school board. The four districts are predominantly white, but Bailey said that’s not the reason for removing them.

“It’s because of the Balkanization by the suburbs … by sheer abandonment,” he said.

Ritz specifically said the commission should not create a nine-member school board with “two districts to be essentially represented by a white person.”

“I don’t think that’s what we need to do these days in this community,” he added.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy said the conversation about black and white districts was “shorthand for something else” other than engineering the election of a white citizen or a black citizen to a school board seat.

“What we mean is a district that a candidate of choice of the African-American community and the African-American voters has a reasonable opportunity of being elected, and a candidate of choice of white voters has a reasonable opportunity of being elected.”

Mulroy added that didn’t necessarily mean a majority of black voters would always elect a black candidate or white voters a white candidate.

But Ritz was specific in making the case for his plan.

“We need to be sure, in my opinion, that there are at least three white people on the school board,” he said. “What happens with the (Bailey) map is that, quite frankly, we disenfranchise, I think, a lot of the people who the school board needs to support us.”

Commissioner Henri Brooks, however, said Ritz’s plan “does not represent the majority of black taxpayers.”

And she argued that black citizens would be more comfortable with a school board that is “culturally competent when they have representation that looks like them.”

“The reality is that people of color have for a long time been denied representation of the school board that they are being taxed for,” she said, referring to the legacy Shelby County Schools board that had districts covering the county outside Memphis but none within Memphis.

If the commission ultimately takes no action on school board redistricting, the board expands to 13 members covering all of Shelby County, including the six suburban municipalities, effective Sept. 1.

That plan was also drawn by the county commission.

U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays would have to approve any school board redistricting the commission might approve.

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