Friday, November 30, 2012

Odd Couples on Unified School Board Get Along

Posted By on Fri, Nov 30, 2012 at 2:31 PM

Ernest Chism (left) and Kenneth Whalum Jr.
A couple of years ago it might have seemed like the Dinner Party from Hell. Gather the members of the Memphis and Shelby County school boards, throw in some fresh faces, bust up the alliances, and put them in a room together for hours at a time for a year or so.

At the center of table sit superintendents Kriner Cash and John Aitken, total strangers four years ago. Nearby, county schools champion David Pickler sits next to MCS charter surrender leader Martavius Jones. As much as anyone, these two set the tone for frank but civil discussions in a series of debates and joint public appearances in 2010-2011.

The unified school system may or may not work, but the unified school board — by design and circumstance — has the most interesting seating chart in town. It may not lead to a world-class unified school system, but it has probably done as much consciousness raising as any public undertaking in recent history.

Other seatmates include Memphis firebrand Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Germantown schools lion Ernest Chism; Dr. Snowden Carruthers of the old county board and Tomeka Hart, coauthor of the MCS charter surrender; and David Reaves, another suburbanite and one of the board's youngest members, and, a few seats away, Sara Lewis of Smokey City in North Memphis, one of the board's senior members. At various times during Thursday night's board meeting, they could be seen talking amiably and smiling and laughing together.

Not to attach too much significance to this or understate differences, but things could be worse. School board is the lowest-paying part-time public job, and probably the most demanding. Five-hour meetings are the norm. Members must have stamina as well as convictions. When the topic is closing schools, as it was Thursday, this is not a job for the faint of heart.

It is also old-school: the polar opposite of the Internet chat room or newspaper comment section. Anonymous online commenters of unknown expertise can post insults and opinions without ever having to face each other or the people they slam. Board members speak, opine, disagree, and vote in public, side by side, for all to see and hear, on issues that change people's lives.

Humes Middle School
Humes Middle School and Gordon Elementary School, two schools near north downtown that are on the chopping block or "repositioning" menu, are tough calls because they have customers, neighborhood ties, and attractive buildings that are not at all blighted.

Near the end of Thursday night's meeting on school closings in north and south Memphis, a somewhat exasperated Chism, former principal at Germantown High School, protested that he was elected to represent the people of Shelby County.

The spectators gave him a small ovation. Chism voted against the closings, as did Whalum on most of the votes.

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