Recently in County Government Category

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.

Merger team website adds audio, video archive

We're in the process of updating documents and data on our landing page for education news, Schools In Transition, and we'll have links there as well. One definite link will be to the Shelby County website's portal for the schools merger transition commission.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell's staff has in a very short time period built a functional, useful home for the transition commission, and many members of the commission hope it eventually evolves into a go-to website for all information related to the merger of the county's public schools. Diane Brown, Jenna Stonechipher, Kim Hackney and Steve Shular have seamlessly added support of the commission to their county government duties, and county information technology chief Michael Pachis and his staff have added the necessary technology to the Shelby County Code Enforcement offices so there is archived audio of meetings there.

There is also video available. Last month's session with leaders involved in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County merger is posted on it, so if you missed it, you can view their take on consolidation's impact on their region (three of the panelists had opposed consolidation).

Halbert email: She and voters 'beyond confused'

The email comes from Wanda Halbert, the Education Chair for the Memphis City Council, and it reveals, well, read it for yourself. Halbert claims that rampant confusion still exists over what, exactly, Memphians are voting for in Tuesday's schools referendum, and her email to City Council attorney Allan Wade and Memphis City Schools attorney Dorsey Hopson indicates that Halbert is confused herself.

Halbert, a former chairman of MCS's board, also distributed the email to MCS board members. Her main issue seems to be with the actual ballot question, which reads, "Shall the management and control of the Memphis City School System be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?" That language was approved in January. Halbert writes in the email:

I am now hearing the decision on March 8th is to "turn over the administration of MCS to SCS."  What exactly does that mean? Will MCS be abandoning its charter, making itself a thing of the past? If the vote passes, does SCS' administration take over MCS immediately?
The answer proponents give most often is that nothing will change immediately -- MCS will continue to operate, teachers teaching, principals managing and students attending their schools until the end of the school year. The state will contend that the legislation passed by Mark Norris setting up a planning commission would be triggered, with full implementation delayed until summer of 2013. The City Council and County Commission will contend that a) the County Commission is moving to set up an expanded unified countywide school board with 18 Memphis representatives and seven suburban and b) the Norris legislation will eventually be struck down by a court.

Halbert asked many more questions recently to try and clear up confusion in the community, and one of the charter proponents, County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, answered all 17 of them. For that document, click here.

For the entirety of Halbert's email sent this morning, click the link below to the right.

More schools YouTube fun: Pickler, Shafer, Thomas

OK, so now that I'm on YouTube, I see a few more videos worth checking out. I don't have time to watch every second of them, but apparently a show on 640-AM, "For Life and Liberty," has some relevant YouTube videos.

This 2009 interview with David Pickler is revealing -- he's talking about the "Plan B" single-source school funding plan conceived by a committee in 2009 that would have essentially transferred the education tax burden Memphians pay as part of their city taxes and spread it across the entire county tax base. Pickler and Shelby County Schools opposed it and eventually stopped participating in talks. A fair question to ask now: If SCS had agreed to the single-source funding plan, would we be having this consolidation discussion now? Or would it have merely further emboldened those seeking schools consolidation now?

Another 640-AM video worth checking out is a more recent one with County Commissioners Heidi Shafer and Chris Thomas, talking about schools consolidation. Shafer, whose Dist. 1 is about 80 percent in Memphis, has been consistently allied on this issue with Thomas and the two other county commissioners whose districts are 100-percent suburban. A former schoolteacher, Shafer is very skeptical about the merits of combining the two districts.

Is huge countywide school board such a bad idea?

Our Shelby County government reporter, Daniel Connolly, has done a fabulous job explaining what is happening with the Shelby County Commission's push for an expanded countywide Shelby County Board of Education in preparation for a March 8 vote to merge Memphis schools with those in the suburbs (see here and here). Much mirth is being made over the proposed size of the board -- right now it's 25 but seems likely to shrink when the county gets census figures almost sure to show a greater proportion of the county's population in the suburbs.

Certainly that's much larger than the current seven-member suburban-only Shelby County Schools board and also the nine-member Memphis City Schools board. With 16 total members for about 150,000 total students, the sum of the two systems board members is still smaller than the proposed new board. An important point -- the commissioners are saying up front they want to eventually shrink the size of a unified countywide board to a more manageable number. But is that such a great idea? Much is being made, especially from suburban opponents of the merger, about the need for more neighborhood accountability and empowerment. Going by that logic, would you not want fewer voters per school member?

Talk amongst yourselves about that one. In the meantime, also consider the size of boards for private schools. Putting ye olde Google machine to use, see the following schools and their number of board members.
  • Briarcrest: 16 members of their Board of Trustees.
  • Christian Brothers: 18 board members.
  • Harding Academy: 18 board members, plus 11 alumni board members.
  • St. Mary's Episcopal School: 25 board members, plus another nine ex-officio, at-large or emeriti members.
If you applied those per-pupil numbers to public schools in Shelby County, we'd be talking about hundreds of board members.

Heidi Shafer called to clarify why she abstained from joining her Memphis colleagues on the County Commission in voting to begin preparations for a new Shelby County school board that would begin with 27 members -- the seven currently on the all-suburban county school board and 20 Memphians to insure the new board has proportional representation. Shafer, a former schoolteacher herself who was elected in August, said she asked for a an opinion from the county attorney's office on whether the Commission's action would stand up to judicial scrutiny.

"I want to make sure we're not doing something we have to undo later," Shafer said.

Shafer also said that she is concerned that consolidation might lead to a drop in the total amount of federal Title 1 money schools that would flow to schools here.

As to why she had previously allied herself with the body's three suburban Republicans and broken ranks with two other representatives of the Commission's Dist. 1 -- fellow Republicans Mike Ritz and Mike Carpenter -- Shafer said she has serious reservations about Memphis acting hastily to force Memphis City Schools to consolidate with the all-suburban Shelby County Schools.
"I just think it's not a good idea to be doing it without some kind of plan in place," Shafer said. "Nobody does that in business. Nobody."

Of course, MCS board member Martavius Jones, the financial planner who made the motion to surrender the charter, has said many times in debates that large corporate mergers happen all the time without a comprehensive plan. But Shafer believes the onus on creating the plan, in this case, should be on the MCS board members who decided to dissolve in large part because of their fear that the a suburban-only special school district would be formed to permantly freeze out Memphis.

Shafer also said she isn't sympathetic to the argument from her Memphis colleagues that there is a great need to quickly give Memphis representation on a unified school board. She cited areas where annexation has occurred that created situations where some residents went without representation.

"Some of them went without representation for two years," Shafer said. "I just think if it's good for the goose it's good for the gander. Let's have fairness and move the way we normally move."

Shafer said she disagrees with those Memphians who are outraged at the Republican-dominated Tennessee state legislature's bill to delay merger by creating a planning commission appointed by and large by suburban interests.

"I don't think they have desire to stick it to Memphis," Shafer said. "What they are concerned about is trying to bring some kind of rational approach."

And, Shafer said, Memphians who claim to be gung-ho for consolidating the school systems may be pushing the county toward some unintended consequences that could be bad for everyone. Combining Memphis schoolchildren and suburban schoolchildren under one district, Shafer said, is not necessarily going to lead to better outcomes.

"I don't want everybody to be equally miserable," Shafer said.

Heidi Shafer taking interesting stance on schools

As part of his Friday press conference, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton stressed how unified Memphis's elected officials -- of all races and all parties -- are on the issue of whether Memphis has the right to determine the future of public education for its students. He admitted there were a few exceptions, and while he didn't call out specific names, he sounded disgusted that state legislators who represent Memphians voted for State Sen. Mark Norris's legislation. Sen. Brian Kelsey and Rep. Mark White are two Republican legislators who fit that description; their districts encompass parts of Memphis and the suburbs.

In terms of the County Commission and City Council, the votes have been almost unanimous -- only newly-elected District 1 commissioner Heidi Shafer has openly opposed plans that might expedite the merger, should voters approve the March 8 referendum to transfer administrative control of Memphis's schools to Shelby County. Shafer and fellow Republicans Mike Ritz and Mike Carpenter also represent District 1, which has 65 precincts -- 54 in Memphis, eight in unincorporated Shelby County and three in Germantown. Ritz and Carpenter have become staunch supporters of the March 8 referendum.

Today, however, Shafer moved somewhat toward the city position -- she abstained on the Commission's vote increase the size of a unified county school board from the current seven-member suburban-only body to a 27-member body so Memphis has proportional representation. It passed anyway, 9-3, with the three suburban-only commissioners (Terry Roland, Wyatt Bunker, Chris Thomas) voting against.

Shafer explained the non-vote: "I'm very concerned about potential loss of Title 1 funding if we do combine the systems."

Title 1 is the federal-government program that provides supplemental funding for districts based on student needs. It's unclear why Shafer believes Title 1 would go down in the event of a merger, at least not why it might go down for Memphis schools and students. Reading the federal guidelines, it appears that schools with Memphis students would be more likely to gain more Title 1 funding, not less.

Some links on Title 1 for those who want to read more on it:
The City Council will meet today (Thursday) at 5 to consider the resolution to approve surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter. This of course creates a lot of unanswerable questions. The basic answer City Council Chairman Myron Lowery gives is that MCS will continue its current operations, the March 8 referendum will still be held and eventually courts will sort out what actions by which entities have force of law, which are unconstitutional, which might create violations of federal civil rights laws, etc.

The resolution provided to members of the media last week spells out a contingency plan that puts Memphis Mayor A C Wharton in charge of negotiations with Shelby County to a) continue operations of MCS without disruption and b) generate a transition plan for full consolidation with county schools to be implemented by July 2012. Those pushing for the council to surrender say it creates another path, along with the referendum, for Memphians to force schools consolidation with the currently all-suburban Shelby County Schools. The state legislation which has been passed by the House and Senate is tied only to the referendum.

After the jump, read the full text of the resolution passed out last week.

NY Times parachutes in, hits close to bull's eye

It's always fascinating to see how national newspapers portray an hot local issue. We call it parachute journalism, and it is most common for local reporters to chortle and roll eyes at how the national outlets either misunderstand or take a swing and miss. When reporters have dropped in to cover the 9th Congressional District race, they've many more strikeouts than home runs, mainly because, in my view, they arrive with preconceived notions of the voting values and public policy priorities of African-American voters in Memphis.

So when I saw the link to The New York Times article, "Memphis to Vote on Dissolving Its School System," up went the fact-checking antennae and my internal editor readied its seek-and-destroy missiles for firing.  No need, as it turned out. The reporter, Campbell Robertson, provided a nice, succinct outsider's view of both sides of issue.

The surrender . . . was a pre-emptive strike, a way to head off a plan by the separate county school system that could have led to a drastic shortfall in city school revenues. With no Memphis school system, the city schools instead would become the county's responsibility.

Opponents of the move, an unlikely coalition of suburban residents, Republican state lawmakers, a Memphis teachers' union and several of the city's black ministers, see it as an unnecessary provocation, one that could end up hurting schools countywide.

Robertson included some potent phrases that helped boil down the issue for a national audience getting its introduction to Memphis's version of city-suburban tensions.

On the strategy of Memphis City Schools board members like Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart on surrendering the charter: "So, facing the possibility of a suburban special district, the city played its trump card."

Robertson points out Collierville State Sen. Mark Norris describes the state legislation he's proposed as merely an attempt to create an orderly transition: "He contends that it is more like a takeover, and that another, more comprehensive set of school consolidation rules should apply. These rules require a planning commission, and a majority approval by suburban voters as well as city voters."

But Robertson provides this kicker: "That voting arrangement, as it happens, would effectively doom the city's plan."

Go read the whole thing. It's instructive and benefits from being able to look at the issue from 40,000 feet, if you will, and not worry with whatever developments are happening immediately on the ground.

Don't just complain. Become an election worker.

Today's story advancing the opening of early voting focuses on promises the Shelby County Election Commission is making about improving in the wake of the now-dismissed lawsuit losing Democrats filed over the Aug. 5 county general election, which they alleged was so filled with mistakes that it made the results "incurably uncertain." Chancery Court judge Arnold Goldin ruled they had delivered no evidence showing intentional fraud or illegality, but as voters hit the polls beginning at 10 today, doubts are going to be fresh in some voters minds -- no matter the assertions by Commission officials that elections are more efficient and less prone to error than ever before.

Finding good workers to put on the election is a big emphasis from the Commission and its administrator of elections, Rich Holden. They didn't say this, but I will -- voters of all stripes are much more apt to whine about the inevitable messiness of the democratic process than to step up and try and make it less messy.

Holden told me: "The most important thing is the elections are conducted by the voters. The No. 1 problem in every jurisdiction in American is getting enough workers -- quality workers -- to conduct an election."

Some of this came up at the trial, with lead Commission lawyer Sam Muldavin basing his opening argument on those nonpartisan Commission civil servants who have worked in some cases for decades with relatively meager resources and relying on part-time workers to conduct elections. In his ruling, Goldin chose to read from the deposition of Dennnis Boyce, the 17-year employee who inadvertantly loaded the wrong database of early-voters into the Aug. 5 Election Day electronic poll books. It's worth reading:

"I want to say this one thing. You know we are a very small staff at the Election Commission, we work our tails off each election and anything that goes awry or anybody that does not double check or anything like that, we are on them all the time. ... We don't mess around. We have an honest staff that works here, some of them have been around a long time, and I just wanted to say, for the record, for us to go through this process and to be claimed to be dishonest in some kind of way, is really a slap in the face. Because we do this all the time. This is what we do."
Holden encourages anyone interested to call the Election Commission at 545-4125 or go to for more information. "I would challenge the voter," Holden said, "that if you walk in to vote and you don't like what's being done on the other side of the table, then change sides, become an election official and solve the problem."
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As the process for merging Shelby County's schools accelerates into action, we'll provide bonus coverage here at, with a particular focus on the 21-member transition team and the 23-member unified school board. Comment early and often. If you have any tips or suggestions you wish to share, contact Zack McMillin at or 529-2564.

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