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VOL. 128 | NO. 172 | Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Smaller School Board Could Take Several Paths

By Bill Dries

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There are at least two schools of thought about the path the seven-member countywide school board should take without the 16 members it has had since October 2011.


David Pickler, one of the seven members who remain, urged the board last week to take a different path than the former 23-member board at least in the way it conducts its business.

Pickler questioned whether a board resolution passed last week informally recognizing labor groups that had represented teachers and other employees of the old Memphis City Schools system was binding on the seven-member board.

Dr. Jeff Warren, one of the departing school board members who sponsored the resolution, argued that with fewer board members, the new board will need all of the political allies it can get to seek more funding from Shelby County government.

In late 2011, school board member Betty Mallott asked to be assigned to an internal operations committee, which had the task of reviewing numerous policies of both school systems to determine how they should be reconciled in the schools consolidation.

By the end of August, when her service on the school board ended, the group had completed work on five of the 14 areas.

“It is absolutely crucial in my opinion,” she said of continuing the work in advance of the selection of a permanent superintendent. “If the board does not, you are basically allowing that superintendent and whoever they hire to determine the direction the school system is going to take on student achievement.”

The search for a superintendent was once considered one of the most immediate and crucial tasks the school board had to undertake in the merger.

It was suspended following the resignation of Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken. His departure made Memphis City Schools interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson the interim superintendent of the merged school system.

In another year, the school board will change once again and go to 13 members, adding six members elected in the August 2014 county general elections.

And there could be some familiar faces among those candidates.

Martavius Jones didn’t rule out that set of school board races as he went off the school board last week.

Jones is not happy with how the board has changed – specifically by slimming down to seven members instead of 13.

Jones was chairman of the Memphis City Schools board at the time of the settlement agreement that created the 23-member school board. He also introduced the resolution that led to the merger referendum in Memphis in March 2012.

“I’m disappointed that the term ended like this,” he said. “All operated almost under the assumption and it was a done deal that the County Commission would be granted the authority to appoint six more members. I don’t know how it got lost in the translation.”

School board member Freda Williams was chairman of the Memphis City Schools board when it voted in late 2010 to surrender the school system’s charter.

“We’ve cut new ground. This is something nationally that hasn’t been done before,” she said. “It’s been a very challenging but rewarding experience.”

Last week was her last school board meeting as a voting member, but probably not her last school board meeting.

“I’m an educator since day one. That’s all I’ve ever done. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. … I have mixed feelings – relief that some of my work is over,” she added. “It has been rewarding but it’s been challenging, physically and emotionally challenging. It will be nice to step away for a while. … I’ll be at that podium from time to time offering my point of view on what’s going on. I won’t go away. … I’ll forever be involved in education.”

The final board meeting for the 23-member school board was just less than two and a half hours in length, which is a far cry from the marathon meetings that were routine in the first months of the combined board. At that time, hour-long discussions about what could be on the agenda were common, as were longer conversations about a formal name for the new school system.

For a time, the clash of meeting cultures between the two former school boards threatened to bog down the body in a parliamentary quagmire, with the seven new board members stuck between the two old boards and two superintendents with two staffs and even two websites.

By the last board meeting of the 23-member group, Chairman Billy Orgel looked back on the adjustment and the results as “the situation we were all put in.”

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