Ritz Calls for Nine-Member School Board

By Bill Dries

Two prospective candidates in the Shelby County Schools board races on the Aug. 7 ballot have already pulled qualifying petitions in two of the 13 races now on the ballot.

But they and others considering a bid for the school board might want to wait.

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz plans to call for the school board to be nine members.

(Daily News File Photo)

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz plans to call for what is now the seven-member school board to become a nine-member board with the August elections instead of the current plan to go to 13 members with the 2014 elections.

The commission could vote on the resolution at its Jan. 27 meeting.

“They probably should wait,” Ritz said of those pondering school board races. “This is just a resolution, so it will only take one vote and I do think that most of the commissioners realize that nine is probably a more rational number for all intents and purposes.”

Ritz’s resolution would create a set of nine districts covering Memphis and unincorporated areas of Shelby County but not the county’s six suburban towns and cities that are forming their own school systems.

The switch would change the Aug. 7 ballot after the filing period for candidates opened Jan. 3. April 3 is the deadline for candidates to file.

The suburban school systems are the reason Ritz said plans for the school board’s structure should change for the fourth time in four years.

The two school boards for the then separate systems were merged in October 2011 along with the appointment of seven new countywide school board members for a 23-member school board with three sets of district lines. The seven countywide school board positions were on the 2012 ballot and school board members were elected to staggered terms depending on whether their districts had an odd or even number with some elected to one-time-only terms of two years. Staggered terms are required for school boards under Tennessee law.

The requirement means more one-time-only two-year terms in the set of 2014 school board races.

In September 2012 the 16 members of the legacy school system school boards went off the 23-member board under terms of the schools merger settlement by all parties in the 2011 federal lawsuit. That left the seven members elected in 2012.

The commission, meanwhile, had approved a set of district lines for a 13-member school board with the idea that commissioners would appoint the six new members until those elected this August begin their terms of office on Sept. 1. A majority on the commission voted for a plan that they argued would also make future redistricting for the once-a-decade U.S. Census easier because the school board would use the same district lines the commission set for itself.

But the school board district lines they approved aren’t an exact match with the commission district lines. There are some differences in the school board districts that were made to keep the seven existing school board members in seven separate districts based on where they live.

And the commission plan to appoint six new members was blocked when U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled that the new positions could be created by the commission but would be filled with the decisions voters make in August.

By Ritz’s own admission the map is complex and includes some non-contiguous areas. The County Commission had set up its own districts and those of a 13-member school board to make the districts as much as possible either predominantly city or predominantly county outside the city of Memphis.

Ritz said that’s not possible with nine school board districts given legal requirements to keep the districts close to the same size.

“That falls away now because of one man, one vote issue,” Ritz said of the philosophy behind a 13-member school board. “You can’t have seven in the city and get two in the county so to speak. Also, you have contiguous issues because some of the parts of the suburbs run all the way to the county line. It’s a funny looking map.”

The commission is not obligated to redraw district lines to take the suburban towns and cities out.

“The county can choose to do this as it pleases. … It doesn’t make sense for people living in the suburban areas to have a vote on the county school system,” Ritz said. “From a practical standpoint they all get the county money on a per-student basis. The County Commission’s money still gets voted on by all 13 (commissioners). We can’t divide the money arbitrarily.”