Though there was persistent (but polite) niggling about whose rules of procedures should be followed on this or that point, the former boards of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, along with seven new members appointed to a 23-member unified county school board by the Shelby County Commission got along well enough in the new board’s debut Monday night.
The meeting, held at the Teaching and Learning Academy at Union and Hollywood, was chaired by David Pickler, the longtime chairman of the SCS Board, who jested to a reporter before things got underway, “Well, you’re going to have to retire the term ‘perennial chairman’ when you write about me.” Indeed so, inasmuch as the new board’s first act was to nominate and elect new officers.
Though Pickler was suggested for vice chair at one point, he declined the nomination, in deference to the new order of things (and perhaps also in recognition that his chances of winning were not great). He would settle for kudos concerning his even-handed conduct of the meeting, received from various of the new board members, including the newly elected chairman, cell-tower magnate Billy Orgel.
Orgel prevailed in a vote of the 22 members present (holdover MCS board member Tomeka Hart was absent) by 16 votes to 5 for Betty Mallott and 1 for Diane George. Orgel was one of the seven County Commission appointees; Mallott and George had been members of the MCS and SCS boards, respectively.
Though he was content to allow Pickler to finish presiding over Monday night’s meeting, Orgel attempted to set the tone for a new era of unified schools in Shelby County by invoking the movie Invictus, which concerned a South African national soccer team’s role in unifying the previously divided ethnic components of that country.
That might have been an overly optimistic prognosis, given the presence of several open and avowed opponents of consolidation the new board (to be designated the Unified Shelby County School Board, if an agenda motion offered Monday night by former MCS member Patrice Robinson is approved at the board’s next meeting).
The election for vice chair was closer than that for chair. Nominee Chris Caldwell, one of the new seven members appointed by the Commission, withdrew from that race, as he had from the vote for chairman, suggesting that a woman should be vice chair. What resulted was a two-person race, with former MCS member Jeff Warren prevailing over new member Venecia Kimbrow by a 12-10 margin. Warren acknowledged having been one of the MCS board minority opposing school merger, but he pledged Monday to be open-minded about making things work.
The mechanics of unification became somewhat more difficult from that moment on. There was confusion about the election of a board secretary, based on the SCS precedent of considering SCS superintendent John Aitken its secretary. At MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson’s suggestion, the new board opted to appoint Aitken and MCS superintendent Kriner Cash co-secretaries.
The post of treasurer was left open, with the board reaching an apparent consensus that Aitken and Cash would each appoint a co-treasurer (the division based on the continued existence of MCS and SCS as functioning school systems, though under the oversight of the new common board).
Some of the obstacles to organizational integration were resolved easily — like the unanimous vote to accept $4200 as a basis salary for board members, that being the prior token compensation for SCS members, as against $5000, which was the pre-existing salary for MCS members.
Other matters, including travel guidelines for board members and the questions of which previous system’s hardware and which software would be accepted for board purposes, proved more vexing, with most of these issues, along with some financial ones, left pending to be resolved later on. (A highlight of a discussion about the efficacy of laptops for board members was ex-MCS board member Sara Lewis’ comment, “It does save trees.”)
One comment on the prospects for the unified board’s success in achieving true school unification was offered via Twitter by member Kenneth Whalum Jr., who had been the most adamant foe of charter surrender on the old MCS board.
In a comment which took three individual 140-character tweets to convey, Whalum had this to say: “The only way to guarantee that children in Memphis get a quality public education is 2-fold: (1) Suburban towns MUST form their own school districts; (2) Memphis parents MUST sue the city/county/state for EDUCATIONAL NEGLECT, which is a form of child abuse. Do I think suburbs will form their own school districts? Yes. Do I think Memphis parents will stand up for their children? Sadly, no.”
Another omen of sorts: When Diane George, whose dissident relationship to the former SCS board in some ways resembled his own maverick role on the old MCS board, was pointed out to him before the meeting got under way, Whalum made a beeline for her to introduce himself.