Countywide Schools Board Fighting Old Cultures

By Bill Dries

Aside from its looming battle with the state over charter schools, the countywide schools board is fighting conflicting meeting cultures of the old Memphis City Schools board and the old Shelby County Schools board.

Board chairman Billy Orgel has a new parliamentarian for the board – Dr. Charles Schultz – to help in the matter. That didn’t stop a board debate last week over charter schools from coming to a brief halt as one board member wondered aloud whether Orgel is chairman or president of the board.

The old MCS board had a president while the old SCS board had a chairman.

It’s one of the least complex questions the 23-member board is grappling with as it prepares for its fourth meeting since taking office Oct. 1.

The four- to five-hour length of the meetings is a legacy of MCS board culture where, in recent years, the board met every Monday, although not every meeting was a voting meeting.

Most, if not all, items on a consent agenda would be and still are presented by the MCS superintendent and staff at about the same level of detail as in the “working sessions” a week before the voting meeting.

The discussion of the consent agenda last week came after board members submitted seven pages of questions in advance and got written answers to those questions.

A meeting that lasted four hours – ending at 10:30 p.m. – as last week’s board work session did, was a short meeting by MCS board standards.

MCS board culture was a change for superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash when he came to Memphis more than three years ago.

Cash complained this month that the agenda of the countywide board now includes numerous MCS budget and contract items and the occasional county schools contract or budget item.

“The reason why Memphis City Schools for years takes such a beating in the media is because we bring our items before the board in full transparent fashion – in full explanation fashion – and describe endlessly how, what, where and why we are doing what we do,” Cash said. “And we still take punishment from everybody. There’s a perception about Memphis City Schools being inefficient and wasteful.”

Cash said the school system can handle that, but said the difference in how a single board now conducts the business of two still-separate school systems should be resolved.

“I can’t keep going month after month with all items coming from Memphis City Schools and nobody asking in a merged situation how Shelby County Schools spends its $400 million-plus dollars. That’s the question that needs to get asked,” he said.

“I know Shelby County Schools builds schools. I know Shelby County Schools uses toilet paper. … I know Shelby County Schools do the same things that Memphis City Schools do. And I want to get it clear now before we go much further.”

Board member Martavius Jones said different school-system charters explain why a purchase of garbage bags for Memphis City Schools shows up on the agenda for approval and there is no vote needed for garbage bags for Shelby County Schools.

The MCS charter requires school board approval of contracts and purchases. The SCS charter requires approval of the same items by the school superintendent and the chairman of the county school board.

“I’ve done this three and a half years a very different way,” Cash said after Orgel reminded Cash the point he made wasn’t an item on the agenda.

Orgel’s point was that the difference still doesn’t explain the lengthy discussions about items on consent, which are on consent theoretically because everyone agrees on them and has already had all of their questions answered.

Orgel’s tentative step toward compromise was to have Cash read only the captions or headings of consent agenda items and not offer the high level of detail that is usually repeated several times until the board disposes of each item one way or another.

Cash started out that way but then began adding more context. It was noticed by board member Mike Wissman, who urged Cash to just read the headings next time.

“I like what we’re doing,” said Diane George of the greater detail.

As a county school board member, she had complained that board moved too quickly and without adequate public review and disclosure of what it was doing.

Former MCS board members then began questioning how items could get on the agenda – consent or otherwise – if there wasn’t a discussion and a vote.

“The point of a consent agenda is you don’t talk about it,” Schultz said at one point.