Co. Commission begins grappling with optimal size, timing for permanent school board

The Shelby County Commission education committee's discussion on Wednesday (story here) about how to wind up in September 2013 with a fully-elected 13-member school board covered much ground, but it glossed over two significant issues -- a loophole in commissioner Walter Bailey's plan that would create less representation for some districts and the commission's lack of coordination with the schools merger transition commission on optimal school board size.

Bailey laid out the following plan:
  • In August of 2012, an election be held for 13 districts, with seven of the winners immediately becoming part of the temporary 23-member unified school board. The other six defer the beginning of their terms until after merger of Memphis City Schools and suburban Shelby County Schools is completed in late summer of 2013.
  • When the nine MCS and seven SCS representatives fall post-merger, the six who deferred their terms join the seven who elected in 2012 to form a 13-member permanent school board.
  • Some number of each group would need to serve staggered terms, so that eventually, by 2016 or 2018, only half the board is being turned over every two years.
Nobody brought up this issue -- is there not a problem of under-representation for the six district seats asked to defer the beginning of their terms? In other words, is it not possible that someone in, say, Frayser would have one retiring MCS representative and one just-elected unified board representative while someone in, say, Whitehaven could have just the one MCS representative while its just-elected unified representative waits one year to join?

Afterward, Bailey and commissioner Steve Mulroy spoke at length about that very issue with attorney Lori Patterson, who works for the outside firm Baker Donelson that has represented the commission during the schools merger litigation process. Patterson had some districting maps that she used to illustrate how that problem of under- or over-representation could be alleviated, though Bailey told me afterward it is possible to live with that "proportionality" disparity for a short-term period if the federal judge and all parties to the consolidation settlement agree.

On the transition commission, it was commissioner Melvin Burgess, a financial administrator at MCS, who asked if perhaps the county commission should be communicating with the schools merger team on how many members should be on the school board. Burgess said that the Council for Great City Schools advocates for a nine-member board and has studies backing it up; Miami-Dade, for one example, has nine members despite a student population of 300,000, Burgess said.

When I asked transition commission members about it later Wednesday, they welcomed the idea of coordination but said it was not something they have looked at closely yet.

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