School Board Crossing

Downsized membership brings countywide board to crossroads

By Bill Dries

The Shelby County Schools board will no longer need a massive semi-circle with 23 seats at its next meeting in September.

Interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson begins working with a seven-member countywide school board starting in September. The 23-member school board that has been in place since October 2011 held its final meeting this week. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The board that has been in place since October 2011 as one of the first moves toward unification of Shelby County’s two public school systems becomes a seven-member board effective Sunday, Sept. 1.

The 16 members of the old Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools boards who cast their last votes Tuesday, Aug. 27, as school board members left a body that they have changed and that has changed them in the almost two years it was around.

Snowden Carruthers was elected to the Shelby County Schools board four months before everything changed and he was on his way to becoming part of the merged school board.

“The experience has not been at all what I was expecting when I ran for the Shelby County Board of Education,” said Carruthers, a career educator in Shelby County Schools. “I felt like I knew the system well enough that I had a good grasp on what was going on.”

Tomeka Hart, one of those on the Memphis City Schools board who first voiced the idea of a consolidation of the school systems, thought it would mean an early end to her second term in office.

“What I wasn’t expecting was that I would still be on the board up until now. I thought 2011 once the citizens of Memphis voted and said yes, I thought we’d be gone then and there would be new district lines drawn,” she said. “I didn’t intend to run even then. I wasn’t expecting the judge to say everybody stay on and we’re going to add seven.”

As they go off the board, Carruthers and Hart have different perspective on the results but a common hope for what comes next.

“The people have been nice to work with. I don’t agree with much of what’s gone on,” Carruthers said. “I know what the law says, but when you give something up you’ve given it up. My feeling has been all along here that because of the numbers you’re giving it up to take it all over again. I would hope that’s not the way it all comes out. We’ve put too much time in this now to see it fail.”

Hart doesn’t hesitate to describe parts of the experience and formation of the merged school district as “chaos.”

“There’s nothing this huge that can’t be chaotic. All of the movements that we honor today they were chaos,” she said, referring mostly to the uncertainty as the merger and the reaction to the merger in the suburbs moved into U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. “I thought the chaos would happen but I thought that the school system would thrive.”

She believes it has a month into the first school year for the unified school district.

And Hart said she also accepts that the district will probably change with the next school year with the formation of suburban school districts.

“While I hoped we could be one school system, I still think those who are pushing for separate systems, it’s because they think that is the best way to provide an education,” she said. “I just hope that one day we can realize whether there’s 20 systems or one system, we can work together as one county to provide a quality education.”

Hart thinks that while unexpected, a 23-member school board worked well.

“I think it was beneficial to have on both sides people with some experience to help work with those seven members. Now they can move forward,” she said. “For all of the work that needed to be done, it was easy to divide that labor.”

Carruthers believes just the size of the board made it more difficult to get the work that needed to be done accomplished sooner.

“There are still so many unknowns and so many things that are unsolved. I just wish them the best,” he said of the seven-member school board. “I think they will be able to do a lot better job with seven people than 23.”

The next school board meeting is a Sept. 17 work session followed by a Sept. 24 voting meeting.

With the September meetings, the smaller school board will move back to the auditorium at the Board of Education building from the nearby Teaching and Learning Academy that had enough space to accommodate a school board only 10 seats shy of the size of the Tennessee Senate.

The auditorium where the old Memphis City Schools board once met got a new coat of paint last week in preparation.

And by the work session, the board should be back up to a full seven members with the Shelby County Commission scheduled to appoint a new board member to the vacant District 6 seat at its Sept. 9 meeting. The seat became open when Reginald Porter resigned to become chief of staff to interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson.