Given the dimensions of the ongoing controversy over city/county school merger, it was doubtless inevitable that it should spark a flame or two in individual races for the seven positions on the Unified School Board.
It did on Sunday, as David Pickler, candidate for District Five (Germantown, Collierville) seemed to question the bona fides of opponent Kim Wirth.
At a fundraiser/meet-and-greet at the Tanner Pavilion on the Germantown Horse Show grounds, Pickler made it clear to a group of supporters that he regards his mission, if elected, to continue on what he calls a 15-year quest on behalf of “independent, autonomous schools in suburban Shelby County.”
Although Pickler consistently sought independent school-district status for Shelby County Schools when he served several consecutive terms as SCS board chairman, he has been more equivocal about the issue as a member of both the 23-member interim United School Board and the 21-member Transition Planning Commission.
And in an interview after his remarks at the meet-and-greet, Pickler expressed doubt that his support for municipal schools could be matched by Kim Wirth, his opponent for the District 5 (Germantown-Collierville) seat on the Unified Board.
Said Pickler: “I think that my opponent is a fine lady, and I appreciate the fact that she’s engaged the community. One concern I have is why she would choose to have her campaign be managed by the same group that was promoting the governmental consolidation Brian Stephens was the co-chair for the Rebuild Government initiative, and when you’re trying to represent an area, when you’re offering to represent an area that was adamantly opposed to the governmental consolidation and you have chosen to align with a group that was adamantly in favor of governmental consolidation, then to me that sends a mixed message. And it makes me question whether or not her new-found support of municipal districts is a message of expediency as opposed to a heartfelt and abiding belief.’
Asked about Pickler’s comments, Stephens, the co-founder of the 2010 project Rebuild Government, which researched city/county consolidation and ultimately endorsed it and currently CEO of Caissa Public Strategies, a public relations firm, responded that Pickler’s comments “sound divisive,” and said, “We’re not managing her campaign. But we do public relations, and we do have customers. We did produce one piece of literature for her. So, technically, she is a client.”
Stephens also pointed out that Rebuild Government had excluded school consolidation from its endorsement of governmental consolidation and that the proposed charter it supported in the 2010 referendum had expressly called for an independent binding vote by suburban residents on any future proposal for school consolidation.
Pickler had also noted the fact that Wirth’s primary educational focus has so far been on Memphis City Schools rather than on the pre-existing Shelby County Schools system. Wirth has served as chairman of the board of the Memphis City Schools Foundation and as a liaison with the Gates Foundation on the MCS Teacher Effectiveness Initiative. She also has been affiliated with the SCORE organization (State Collaborative on Reforming Education) established by former U.S. Senator Bill Frist.
Wirth could not be reached for comment on Monday morning, but, at a forum held last week by the Collierville Republican Club, she and Pickler expressed agreement on most issues regarding the current school-merger issue. She specifically backed Shelby County’s six municipal suburbs wish to establish their own independent school districts and said that existing school buildings should be transferred to them without cost and that municipal districts should be allowed to enroll students in adjacent unincorporated areas of Shelby County.
In an emailed response received by the Flyer late Monday, Wirth responded to Pickler's allegations with a statement, which reads in part:
...My campaign is managed by Aleesa Blum, a retired executive from International Paper and one with experience running political campaigns. Brian Stephens is one of many vendors I have and he helped me with a communication piece.
So we are clear, I have had children in Shelby County Schools since 2004, and I am proud of the work I have done as a parent volunteer and PTA board member in my children's school. Through my role as the Executive Director of International Paper's Foundation, I have partnered with the Shelby County Schools Foundation and a number of schools directly providing thousands of dollars in support of literacy, environmental education programs and as sponsor of the annual Race for Education event.
I am also proud of my involvement with the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Sen. Frist's SCORE organization. These experiences have only increased my commitment to all Shelby County students and provides a clear choice for voters.....