Whalum, Woods Differ on Schools Mediation

By Bill Dries

Two countywide school board members who ran against each other for the same seat on the school board last year agree that the 23-member board is doing the best it can to make decisions about the schools merger.

“It’s not a pretty process,” school board member Kevin Woods said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “It’s 23 members who have a constituency that they feel they must advocate for. It’s not going to be a short, quick and pretty process.”

Kenneth Whalum Jr. also cited the size of the school board on the same program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News. The program can be seen on The Daily News Video, www.memphisdailynews.com.

“With a 23-member, anything that is making policy decisions, the work is in the work itself,” Whalum said. “The absolute trudging that we do – it’s very frustrating.”

Whalum rejected any thought of mediation talks with the city of Memphis on $57 million the city owes the Memphis City Schools and the consolidated school system from the state court battle of the City Council’s 2008 decision to cut city funding for schools.

Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn suggested mediation as a way to get some one-time funding to the schools in the first fiscal year of the merger. It would be an alternative to waiting for the resolution of a counterclaim by the city in state court that the school system owes the city as much as $140 million.

“There isn’t supposed to be mediation of a (Tennessee) Supreme Court judgment, no. It’s a deadbeat dad syndrome. ... You don’t get to say, ‘I know I’m responsible but I’ve got bills to pay.’”

– Kenneth Whalum Jr.
Countywide school board member

“There isn’t supposed to be mediation of a (Tennessee) Supreme Court judgment, no,” Whalum said. “It’s a deadbeat dad syndrome. … You don’t get to say, ‘I know I’m responsible but I’ve got bills to pay.’ I’m for show me the money.”

Woods was open to mediation talks on the funding.

“I’m open to anything that’s going to get us paid as soon as possible,” he said. “To me, I interpret mediation as not more attorneys necessarily, but smart people sitting around a table saying, ‘Listen, you know what is owed. You know you are responsible for these children. Let’s make it happen.’”

Woods also said the Shelby County Commission’s decision to open a second phase of the federal lawsuit over the merger and its terms by contesting the creation of municipal school districts in the suburbs has shifted the focus of the merger.

“I think all of that muddies the water as far as what our focus should be on,” Woods said, adding that most citizens he talks with ask him about the suburban schools and the court case. “Seventy percent of our kids are being neglected through that conversation. Where are we academically? … How are we performing in the classroom?”

Whalum said the commission has slowed and changed the outcome of the merger.

“If the County Commission hadn’t gotten involved, eventually adults would have controlled the outcome,” he said. “It was very unfortunate for the County Commission to involve themselves as they did particularly with the voting balance on the commission – with the city representatives controlling basically the outcome of the vote. It became us versus them. It became payback. It became petty.”

Woods also outlined what he sees as an important dividing line in the outlook of parents of children in the two school systems when it comes to school funding.

“The true difference is that those in Shelby County suburbs believe that they have a superior education. They believe that they have a product that is worth fighting for,” he said. “Until we can do the same in Memphis – where every citizen in Memphis believes it is a product worth saving, that we can deliver a quality education and that we have a system from day one that prepares kids for quality education – that’s a conversation that’s often lost in the superintendent search and the municipalities having their own school system.”

Woods and Whalum ran for the District 4 seat on the seven-member board that remains after Sept. 1 when the board loses 16 members in the transition to the schools merger. The board loses the nine members of the old Memphis City Schools board and the seven members of the old Shelby County Schools board.

Woods was appointed by the Shelby County Commission in late 2011 to the District 4 seat. Whalum, who continues to serve through Sept. 1 on the at-large or citywide seat he holds on the old Memphis City Schools board also ran for the District 4 position.

Woods won the certified vote count.

But still pending is Whalum’s Chancery Court challenge of the election results. Whalum cites election problems in August and November in the lawsuit.