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VOL. 129 | NO. 50 | Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ruling Sets School Board Membership at Nine

By Bill Dries

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No local elected body in Shelby County has changed as many times in as short a period of time as the Shelby County Schools board.

The Shelby County Schools board went to 23 members in October 2011, the first of three changes to the board's structure in as many years.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The federal court order Tuesday, March 11, by U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays approving the restructure of the school board to a nine-member body effective Sept. 1 will mark the third change in the school board in three years when it takes effect following August school board elections.

In that three-year period, there have been four plans to change the structure of the schools board. That includes the one approved by the Shelby County Commission that was then replaced by the commission before it could take effect, with the plan approved by Mays’ court order.

The changes began with the September 2011 court settlement among all parties in the federal lawsuit over the local schools reformation. It established a 23-member school board.

That board served from the move to the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems into the first month of the first and only school year of the merger in 2013. It consisted of all nine members of the legacy Memphis City Schools board and the seven members of the legacy Shelby County Schools board as well as seven new school board members appointed by the Shelby County Commission. Those appointments were pending school board elections a year later for the seven new positions.

The 23-member board was three sets of district lines – the city of Memphis districts comprising the Memphis City Schools board, the Shelby County outside Memphis districts making up the Shelby County Schools board and seven new districts that covered all of Shelby County including the city of Memphis.

Under terms of the settlement, the 23-member board became a seven-member school board effective Sept. 1, 2013, with the seven school board members elected to the countywide set of districts in 2012 remaining while the legacy MCS and SCS school board members went off the board.

In the same 2011 settlement, Mays approved a plan that gave the County Commission the ability to expand the merger school board to up to 13 members.

The commission, through its attorneys, sought the power to do that to give the school board the same set of district lines as the commission, which through a ruling in an unrelated Shelby County Chancery Court lawsuit converts to 13 single-member districts with the 2014 elections.

But the 13-district school board plan approved by the commission didn’t correspond to the new County Commission district lines. There were some minor changes the commission approved for the school board in order to keep the seven school board incumbents in separate districts so that no two incumbents would have to run against each other.

And when the commission sought to appoint the six new school board members, the other parties in the sprawling federal lawsuit disagreed, with the dispute going to Mays to settle.

Mays ruled that while he approved the part of the settlement that said the school board could be expanded to up to 13 members, he never said the commission could appoint the six new members to carry off the expansion. He ordered that the seats be filled with the winners of the August 2014 elections for those seats taking office on Sept. 1.

Then the commission changed the 13-district plan to a nine-district plan with districts covering the city of Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County but not the six suburban cities and towns, which by then were on their way to forming separate school systems.

Mays’ approval this week of that plan scrambles the filing period for school board candidates that has been underway since January and has an April 3 filing deadline.

Several candidates had pulled qualifying petitions based on the 13-district school board plan.

With the April 3 filing deadline still in place, the August election ballot will now have seven school board races. The school board incumbents holding the District 2 and District 4 seats – Teresa Jones and board Chairman Kevin Woods – will continue to serve the four-year terms they were elected to in 2012.

The Districts 1, 6, 8 and 9 board members elected in August will be elected to full four-year terms. The winners in Districts 3, 5 and 7 will serve one-time-only terms of two years in order to stagger the terms of office on the school board, which is required under state law.

The new districts also mean another effort by the Shelby County Election Commission to explain to voters which school board districts they live in and prepare voting machines to reflect the right district races for voters.

The once-a-decade redistricting of the Tennessee legislature and U.S. Congress, both by the Tennessee legislature, proved to be a problem for the commission in the 2012 elections that prompted a report by the Tennessee Comptroller’s office critical of the Election Commission’s effort to ensure the right district races appeared on the right ballots.

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