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VOL. 129 | NO. 26 | Friday, February 7, 2014

County Commission Delays Schools Redistricting

By Bill Dries

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With candidates in the August Shelby County Schools board elections already a month into their filing period, the Shelby County Commission delayed Wednesday, Feb. 5, any vote on changes in the number of seats on the school board as well as the district lines until its Feb. 24 meeting.

The deadline for candidates in what remains 13 school board races on the August ballot to file their qualifying petitions is April 3.

The Shelby County Schools board is now a seven-member body with districts that cover all of the county. The commission approved in 2012 a move to a 13-member school board and had planned to appoint the six new members, but U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled the six new seats would be filled by voters in the August elections.

Commissioner Mike Ritz, who was the architect of the 13-member school board and its district lines, is proposing a nine-member school board instead with districts that would cover all of Memphis and the unincorporated parts of Shelby County but exclude the six suburban towns and cities.

“You’re talking 20,000 people per district. If you think 20,000 people is a huge difference, that’s your opinion. I don’t think it is. Seven people is a more workable body.”

–Steve Basar

The suburban towns and cities are forming their own school districts, each with its own school board elected in 2013.

Commissioner Steve Basar is proposing a plan to keep the school board at its current seven members with another set of district lines that would also draw out the suburban towns and cities.

“You’re talking 20,000 people per district,” Basar said of the difference in the sizes of the district between Ritz’s nine-district plan and his seven-district plan. “If you think 20,000 people is a huge difference, that’s your opinion. I don’t think it is. Seven people is a more workable body.”

Ritz argued that the current school board works well together because they were initially appointed by the County Commission and five of the seven were later elected to it.

“I think the fact that they get along well is more a reflection of the background of how they got there and not the size itself,” Ritz said, adding the seven districts are more diverse. “I think what you wind up with is a more representative, more democratic … group of seven than nine. … We need to try to have a school board that represents all of those kinds of communities.”

Commissioner Walter Bailey said he favored a larger body because it would allow for “the common man” to be better represented.

“There are some people who would suggest that the more participation you’ve got by people in terms of the common people – that the larger the body, that breeds chaos and confusion,” Bailey said. “I think democracy ought to involve chaos and confusion. I don’t think we ought to be in lockstep. Germany was in lockstep.”

He called Ritz’s plan “a paragon of equal protection” and compared a seven-member school board to an “oligarchy.”

“Why don’t we go to five? Why don’t we go to three?” Bailey asked. “Why don’t we go to a monarchy? A monarchy would be very efficient.”

Like Ritz’s plan, Basar’s districts are not contiguous. Basar’s Districts 4 and 5 would each have two sections that are divided by the suburban cities.

Incumbent school board members Teresa Jones and Kevin Woods would continue to serve through August 2016 and their districts would not be on the 2014 ballot under the Ritz and Basar proposals.

Of the five school board district races on the August ballot, those elected in Districts 1, 5 and 6 would serve a full four-year term under Basar’s plan. And those elected in Districts 3 and 7 would serve a one-time-only term of two years to stagger the terms of board members, as required by state law.

Ritz would have those elected in Districts 1, 6, 8 and 9 serve a full four-year term and the winners in Districts 3, 5 and 7 serve a two-year term.

“What if one of the (suburban) school systems doesn’t make it? Do we have to go back and redistrict?” Commissioner Terry Roland asked. “If you’ve got the reserve areas in there and they get annexed, do we have to go back and change that? … Why don’t we just stay like we are for a year?”

Roland favored the delay, saying, “There’s definitely no hurry.”

Ritz cited the coming elections as well as past problems at the Shelby County Election Commission with having the right district races on the ballot for voters in new legislative districts.

In the school board races, six candidates, including school board incumbents Billy Orgel and Chris Caldwell and former school board member Freda Williams, have pulled petitions for the 13 school board races as of Wednesday afternoon.

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