Much is being said and written about the length and seeming minutiae of Monday night's organizational meeting of the Shelby County Board of Education as a unified 23-person body (see Wendi Thomas on it here), but it was primarily one unanticipated issue that pushed the meeting beyond the planned three hours.
The discussions and motions and amendments and clarifications and points of order and attempts to table went on for 54 minutes over, essentially, where on the organizational chart to place staff lawyers Valerie Speakman (Shelby County) and Dorsey Hopson (Memphis City Schools).
Collierville attorney Vanecia Kimbrow, one of the County Commission's seven appointees, asked at the beginning of the meeting to add the issue to the agenda, and it came up near the end of the meeting, just after the planned ending time of 8:30 p.m.
When the matter was finally voted on at almost 9:30 p.m., after attempts to table and defer it, Kimbrow phrased the motion like this:
"I'm going to move for the question that with attorney Hopson and attorney Speakman, that we realign the organizational chart that they report to the new board of education and they support the superintendent in matters of his discretion or their discretion. They can appoint outside counsel on matters where the superintendent may feel he needs independent counsel, either he or Cash, with financial responsibility for attorney Hopson continuing through his contract period with (MCS) and attorney Speakman's compensation to remain with the board of education as the contract now stands."It passed, 13 votes to 8. Kimbrow, who has held leadership positions with local legal groups, showed a relentless consistency in making sure the matter was settled.
Historically, the SCS board had put its general counsel underneath the superintendent, while the MCS board's attorney was underneath the purview of the board -working with the administration on legal matters but ultimately independent and answering to the board. Kimbrow called it an inherent conflict of interest -- having an attorney who reports to the superintendent be the legal counsel for the board.
Also crucial last night - Hopson's contract with the now-defunct MCS board allowed him a buyout if he were not retained as the new board's legal counsel. He emphatically stated he wanted to stay with on board. "I don't want to go anywhere," Hopson said. "I want to be a part of what you all are doing."
At the heart of the issue for Kimbrow and the majority of the board was the vulnerability it faced if it did not have legal counsel representing it alone. Kimbrow said it was "totally improper, in my opinion," for the board's legal counsel to report to and be supervised by an employee of the school board who may have an agenda separate from the school board's.
"She tenders her decisions to her boss and her supervisor, and the way the organization chart provides, that is in fact what happens," said Kimbrow, a mother of three children currently in suburban Shelby County schools. Kimbrow said she would agree to the board hiring outside legal counsel for the superintendents but "in no instance will I support Ms. Speakman being counsel and reporting to Mr. Aitken or Mr. Cash," she said.
Longtime SCS board chairman David Pickler said the SCS board has relied on an outside law firm for board decisions, but SCS board member Diane George said she never had access to legal advice. "I haven't been able to pick up the phone and call that law firm," George said. "My experience has been, it is exactly right, it is a conflict of interest. We need to have someone that is going to be the legal counsel to this board."
Hopson said he needed direction from the board. When it wasn't immediately forthcoming, board member Reginald Porter reminded the board that it had not answered Hopson's question. Some board members seemed to take Kimbrow's questioning of the organizational structure as an implied questioning of Speakman and Hopson - both of whom praised one another's work and seemed eager to go forward as a team.
"We are in quandary and I think this is a very complicated situation," said board member Betty Mallott. "I'm troubled that it appears we can't trust the attorneys who have guided us so long and worked together and cooperated with the judge. I have never heard one of these say anything about the other that the other is not trustworthy.
"If we are going to make this kind of an issue over these two respected, laudable people, then how in the world are we going to merge this district? I haven't seen a reason to question the legal advice of either of the attorneys."
David Reaves of Bartlett suggested the possibility of having both attorneys answer to the superintendents and start new with a legal counsel answering to the board. But ultimately Kimbrow's motion carried, supported by a mix of Memphis and suburban residents. Hopson seemed relieved. He and Speakman said they have had long conversations about working together.