Commission Considers Timetable for School Board Appointment

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Commissioners meet in special session Wednesday, Aug. 14, to set the procedure for appointing a new member to the countywide school board.

And the process is much less complicated than it was before a ruling by Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. That’s not to say it is without complexity.

The only item on Wednesday’s agenda is a resolution that sets a timetable for interviewing applicants for the District 6 school board seat during Aug. 28 committee sessions, with the full commission voting on a replacement at its Sept. 9 meeting.

The meeting is at 11 a.m. at the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, 160 N. Main St.

Whoever gets the appointment will serve in the seat that was held by Reginald Porter until he resigned earlier this month to become chief of staff to interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

The appointee will join the school board as it makes the transition from a 23-member body to a seven-member body next month and will serve through August 2014.

When the winners of the August 2014 county general elections take office Sept. 1, the school board will expand to 13 members from newly drawn smaller districts.

School board elections are non-partisan races with no party primaries in advance.

The transition to seven members comes one month short of two years since the countywide school board formed, encompassing the nine positions on the old Memphis City Schools board and the seven positions on the old Shelby County Schools board, along with seven positions from a set of new districts covering the entire county.

In the beginning, the body struggled with clashing meeting and organizational cultures between members of the two former school boards, with the seven new members as the middle ground.

The 23-member board, with three sets of overlapping district lines, gives way Sept. 1 to the seven positions that were first appointed by the County Commission and then elected in the 2012 county general elections.


Billy Orgel, chairman of the countywide school board since its inception in October 2011, is a defender of the larger school board at that point in the merger process.

“I thought the 23 served a good purpose. As we were planning the merger, you got all of the benefits and wisdom of the two former boards,” he said. “Plus you got the fresh ideas that came along with the seven new members. I thought it worked rather well. It preserved the status quo for two years and got people comfortable with the impending merger.”

“Seven is a lot better number in order to reach compromise and get something accomplished.”

–Billy Orgel
Chairman, Shelby County Schools board

The merger formally began with the July 1 start of the new fiscal year, and the most public and critical part of the merger began Aug. 5 with the first day of classes.

“I think that 23 going forward … is not a good number to try to legislate from,” Orgel said. “Seven is a lot better number in order to reach compromise and get something accomplished.”

That is certainly the hope and thinking of Mays in his Aug. 7 ruling on the commission’s move to immediately appoint the six new school board members.

“One of the court’s goals in approving the consent decree was to further the ultimate goal of effective combination by encouraging continuity of policy made by an established, responsive, elected governing body,” Mays wrote in his ruling. “Expanding the school board by appointing six unelected members at a critical time creates uncertainty and potentially undermines the legitimacy of the school board’s decision making. … Appointing six additional members would unnecessarily dilute the school board’s responsiveness to the voters of Shelby County.”

The 23-member school board was a feature of the 2011 settlement among all parties in the federal court litigation first over the schools merger and then over the move by suburban leaders to establish six separate municipal school districts starting with the 2014-2015 school year.

Mays approved the settlement along with a provision that allows the commission to expand the school board to 13 members at some point after Sept. 1. His ruling made it clear that the transition to 13 members with new, smaller districts will come a year into the merger.

Orgel echoed Hopson, who has said he wants to see the school system move away from the merger being its central focus.

“I think we’ll be hyper-focused on molding together the framework for the system as we move forward,” Orgel said this week. “We are not going to be sidetracked by the merger issues. We are going to be focused on the things we need to be focused on, not so much the structure of the school system. I think we can concentrate more on policy and focus on student achievement.”