Commission to Consider Consolidated School Board

By Bill Dries

Republican state legislators from Shelby County and leaders of the Shelby County Commission are on opposite sides of the schools consolidation issue.

But they have now each used the art of political timing to change the landscape of the issue with very little advance notice.

Republican state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville did it earlier this month by dropping from his legislation a requirement for a countywide vote on schools consolidation and leaving unchallenged the March 8 citywide referendum on the question.

Last week, Shelby County commissioners unveiled a redistricting plan for a new 25-member countywide school board including the city of Memphis that changed the nature of the appointment process.

It leaves open the possibility that all nine Memphis City Schools board incumbents might be part of the countywide school board and it opened up the seven existing county school board seats to appointment by the County Commission.

The commission will vote Monday on the set of resolutions and final reading of an ordinance that should just about complete the “second track” of the pursuit of schools consolidation.

The meeting begins at 1:30 p.m. at the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, 160 N. Main St.

The first set of district lines drawn by the Office of Planning and Development put county school board chairman David Pickler and board member Ernest Chism in the same district.

That was changed in a second draft that put all seven incumbent county school board members in separate districts and avoided combining any of the nine incumbent city schools board members in the same district.

And the plan came with maps that showed the locations of the homes of all 16 city and county school board incumbents.

“Up until a few hours ago, I was of the opinion that we would appoint 18 people from Memphis to go with the seven existing county school board members to provide a balance and to leave those people in place that ran for office and not have their term shortened,” Commissioner Mike Ritz said Wednesday in noting the abrupt shift.

The commission had been operating on the assumption that it would not try to challenge legal opinions, saying the elected terms of all seven county school board members could not be shortened. But that has changed.

“They’re using this as a political tool,” Commissioner Terry Roland said last week. “They’re going to gerrymander … to try to completely take over this process of this school board.”

County Commission chairman Sidney Chism termed the remark “posturing.”

“We’re doing exactly what the (state) act and the (county) charter says we can do,” Chism said. “Until a court tells us different, that’s exactly the road we are going to travel.”

The road to a court ruling on the issue may follow quickly. Chism and several other commissioners have said they expect the county school board to file suit over the redistricting and appointment resolutions soon after the Monday votes by the commission.

The plan also tinkers with the existing county school board districts to include parts of Memphis in six of the seven districts.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Mike Carpenter also expressed doubts about following the long-accepted redistricting tradition of creating racial majorities – black and white – of 70 percent or higher.

He said those kinds of percentages “continue to perpetuate the polarization that exists in this community via the way we elect representatives.”

Carpenter said candidates tend to use limited campaign money and time to campaign with the racial majority and ignore voters of the racial minority in their districts because it’s easier.

The set of district lines recommended in committee last week includes only two districts with racial majorities of less than 70 percent. Carpenter wants four or five less than 70 percent.

The plan has 13 districts that are majority black and 12 that are majority white when counting by total population. By voting age population, there are 12 majority black and 13 majority white.

Each district has an average of 34,000 people with a 2.2 percent variance above or below that number.

Case law in redistricting lawsuits has established a 10 percent variance either way as the legal standard.