DIVISIVE DEBATE 

DIVISIVE DEBATE

It was almost nine p.m. The Memphis City Schools board meeting had been going strong since just after 5:30 p.m., when the president called the meeting to order but had to recess until a quorum of commissioners was present. The commissioners had voted on capital improvements for A.B. Hill Elementary. They’d discussed Commissioner Wanda Halbert’s somewhat controversial proposal to provide separate legal counsel for the board and school administration. They’d even been presented with a comprehensive study of how consolidation occurred and worked in Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. But after weathering those possible firestorms rather peacefully, the board got into a bit of a skirmish when Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson shared the proposal for a pilot math program. The pilot program of “I Can Learn,” an interactive multimedia approach to teach Algebra I, prompted debate from commissioners who wondered about the cost and segment of the population that would be reached. Although the program was proposed once before under former superintendent Gerry House to the tune of $9 million, Watson’s pilot proposal was much smaller, costing $300,000 and reaching 180 students. After commissioners questioned the program, Watson brought up his eight strategies to raise student achievement. “I would like the opportunity to implement them,” he said. But as the talks raged on, seemingly over smaller issues such as using the word “pilot,” Commissioner Hubon Sandridge began to take the board to task. “We’re going to have to get our heads together,” Sandridge said. “We’re sending the wrong message out there.” Sandridge brought up the board’s retreat at the beginning of the year when they vowed to enter into “dialogue, not debate.” “It’s not about $9 million, it’s about the children,” says Sandridge. “If I have a concern, I call the superintendent on the phone. We’re making the debate public.” Commissioner Sara Lewis then uttered, “That’s an assumption.” “Well, it’s my assumption and I don’t interrupt you when you talk,” said Sandridge. Shortly thereafter, he gathered his things, put on his cap, and walked out of the meeting. Other stunned commissioners said they were not trying to bring the board into a debate and didn’t want their actions to be seen as divisive.

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