School Board Restructuring Plan Goes to Mays

By Bill Dries

On the way to U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays is a plan by the Shelby County Commission to convert the countywide school board to a 13-member single-district body effective Sept. 1.

The plan approved by the commission Monday, March 18, includes district lines that are almost but not an identical match of the 13 single districts to be used in County Commission elections in 2014.

If Mays approves, the commission would appoint six citizens to the added positions who begin serving Sept. 1.

That is when the 23-member board loses 16 members – nine from the old Memphis City Schools board and seven from the old Shelby County Schools board. That leaves the seven school board members elected in 2012 to staggered terms.

Ten of the 13 newly configured district seats go on the 2014 ballot. The remaining three are on the 2016 ballot for the first time.

The terms of office for those elected vary in a complex plan that requires staggered school board terms by state law.

“They want to appoint them back on the school board. They already know who’s going to be on the school board.”

– Terry Roland
Shelby County Commissioner

It would mark the second and third sets of school board races in five years in which some school board members are elected to one-time-only terms of two years in order to stagger terms.

The commission had a solid eight-vote majority to move ahead with the plan that consisted of all seven Democrats on the 13-member commission along with Republican Mike Ritz, who is chairman of the commission.

The eight-vote majority voted down several attempts by the remaining five Republican commissioners to delay a vote on the resolution.

The group of five commissioners opposed to the new plan or to approving it this week argued there were too many undecided factors. Those include what happens to the restructured board if leaders of the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County are able to form their own municipal school districts.

And some of the opponents argued that the expansion was a way to keep some school board members on the body instead of them exiting when the board slims down effective Sept. 1.

“They want to appoint them back on the school board,” said Commissioner Terry Roland. “They already know who’s going to be on the school board.”

Those favoring the restructuring largely avoided the debate and instead moved ahead with the series of votes.

With the decision, the county awaits legal opinions and possibly guidance from the court on what happens to the 13-member structure if the six suburban cities and towns in Shelby County are able to create separate municipal school districts.

“There is not an easy answer to that,” Shelby County Attorney Kelly Rayne told commissioners Monday.

Rayne said just because courts upheld the late 1990s model of an elected Shelby County Schools board that excluded representation of city of Memphis citizens, it doesn’t necessarily translate to a decision that a countywide school system without the suburban towns and cities would mean no suburban seats on that school board.

“It’s a case-by-case very intensive review. We don’t know,” she said.

Rayne added the legal decision on that question will likely revolve around the concept of what constitutes a “substantial interest” by suburban citizens in the affairs of a public school district that does not take in the places they live in.

Ritz said the commission could always change the plan if there cannot be representation of the suburban towns and cities.

There also could be questions about whether the terms of board members elected in 2014 could be shortened in that event.

The 13 school board districts in the plan are not an exact match of County Commission districts effective in 2014. That was the initial reasoning behind the restructuring – to only draw one set of district lines for both elected bodies every decade.

The lines in four school board districts differ to avoid pairing school board incumbents Billy Orgel and Kevin Woods in the same district and Chris Caldwell and Teresa Jones in the same district.

In other action, the commission changed its ordinance that would have given Memphis City Schools teachers who live outside Shelby County five years to move within the county and meet county government residency requirements that apply with the schools merger.

The commission dropped the five-year grace period and instead approved an amendment by Commissioner Steve Basar to grandfather in all current MCS employees – that is make them exempt from having to meet the residency requirement.

Because the ordinance was amended on what would have been its third and final reading, it comes back to the commission next month for a final vote.

And the commission voted down the second of three readings of a referendum ordinance to ask voters across the county in the August 2014 elections to abolish the county residency requirement in the county charter. The measure failed on a 5-5 vote with three commissioners abstaining. Despite the defeat, the ordinance advances to third reading in April.