The Jones Factor 

A Unified School District proponent cries foul on the Aitken strategy.

click to enlarge Martavius Jones
  • Martavius Jones

Martavius Jones, who with Tomeka Hart was one of the prime movers in the December 2010 decision by the Memphis City Schools board to surrender its charter, thereby initiating city/county school merger, has consistently been an advocate ever since of maximizing the contours and possibilities of the Unified School District that will become reality in August 2013.

As a current member of the provisional Unified School Board and of the Transition Planning Commission created by the 2011 Norris-Todd Act to advise on the MCS merger with Shelby County Schools, Jones has resisted all efforts to facilitate the creation of separate suburban municipal school districts, threatening suit against future attempts by such districts to acquire existing school buildings free of cost or to enroll students from unincorporated areas of Shelby County.

But Jones' position in regard to a June 11th meeting called by Billy Orgel, president of the Unified District's interim 23-member board, has other opponents of the suburban breakaway districts puzzled.

The stated purpose of that meeting is to consider an extension of the current contract of MCS superintendent Kriner Cash, and it is widely acknowledged that Cash's job is on the line. A plan of action has been gathering steam among advocates of an all-county school district that envisions dispatching Cash and hiring current SCS superintendent John Aitken as permanent superintendent of the Unified District. The concept has also acquired widespread support among the members of the TPC.

The idea is that such an action would reassure the suburban residents of six Shelby County suburbs who will be voting on August 2nd on the question of whether to establish independent municipal districts. As a corollary, the prospect of Cash as superintendent of a Unified District is considered a possible disincentive to such voters.

When Orgel announced the meeting, Jones and fellow MCS board holdover Stephanie Gatewood publicly and immediately demurred. Jones sought unsuccessfully to add a consideration of Aitken's contract to the June 11th agenda as well, and, though he was never regarded as a particular partisan of Cash's on the old MCS board, he has become a vociferous advocate of Cash's credentials to head the Unified District as compared to Aitken's.

"Aitken has never headed up an urban school district nor one the size of what the Unified District will be, whatever its final proportions," Jones said on Monday. He has also argued that to appoint Aitken to the position of superintendent would be unconstitutional, inasmuch as the old SCS district itself has been found unconstitutional.

Jones said his position is nothing new, that he has held it ever since he first heard the idea of an Aitken appointment floated back in January.

Inasmuch as Jones has been arguably the most articulate spokesperson to date of a large Unified District encompassing the whole of Shelby County, his defense of Cash and opposition to Aitken could affect, even if marginally, the outcome of the vote in the suburbs on August 2nd.

And it raises the profile of the superintendency issue as a possible factor in the seven races for the permanent Unified School Board taking place on the same date.            

• Whether it's a case of a blind squirrel finding real acorns or a maligned activist coming into her own with important revelations, new questions raised about the Shelby County Election Commission by controversial Seattle-area voting-rights activist Bev Harris may well cause serious investigations and important procedural changes.

Allegations from Harris last week that hundreds of Shelby County voters — almost all black Democrats — have had their voting history erased have put Election Commission officials on the defensive and prompted a demand from 9th District congressman Steve Cohen Sunday that the U.S. Department of Justice and Tennessee state election coordinator Mark Goins look into her charges.

"The ballot must remain free and open to all," said Cohen, who had made similar requests for DOJ scrutiny following a glitch in the August 2010 countywide election that caused several hundred voters to be turned away, at least temporarily, after an erroneous early-voting list had been fed into the county's electronic voting log.

Subsequently, a slate of losing Democratic candidates in that election filed suit to force new elections, and Harris was one of several consultants called in to aid the litigants. She helped prepare a comprehensive list of alleged irregularities but was not recognized as a proper authority by Chancellor Arnold Goldin, nor did attorneys for the plaintiffs avail themselves of her most sensational accusations, some of which imputed illegal intentions to the Election Commission. Goldin ultimately dismissed the suit summarily.

Harris, whose Black Box Voting blog attempts to monitor election irregularities nationwide, has remained in touch with Shelby County Democrats who are appealing that decision and has stepped up her attention to local voting issues of late.

A month or so ago, she contacted members of the Shelby County Election Commission and the news media with an updated list of alleged Election Commission irregularities. These attracted little note, but she got everybody's attention with her new charges last week that the prior voting history of 488 Shelby Countians, whom she listed by name, had been inexplicably erased on an Election Commission "all details" list of registered voters of a sort that is issued monthly.

Almost all of the voters on the list were African-American Democrats, and the absence of a voting history could make such voters legal fodder for a purge list, Harris said.

Local Democratic activists were predictably outraged, and neither Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers nor commission executive director Rich Holden, both Republicans, had a ready explanation, though both insisted that the actual registration records on the Election Commission's official computers contained the full election histories of all 488 voters, whose ability to vote was not endangered.

Meyers and Holden each said they welcomed an investigation by a responsible outside authority, and each acknowledged that the commission's current technology might be flawed and in need of replacement. "If we end up with a new system that works better, that would suit me fine," Holden said.

Bev Harris herself eschews any ambiguity. Her send-out on the latest Election Commission irregularity is headed, "Caught Red Handed," and she says: "Four hundred and eighty-eight voters, every one of them in the Tennessee district of U.S. Representative Steve Cohen (D-09), all but four lifelong Democrats, and nearly all black, had their voting history erased by Shelby County election workers, setting them up for purge from the voter list."

Although one of the 488 listed voters, Cardell Orrin, is campaign manager of Cohen's opponent in this year's Democratic primary, school board member Hart, and it is at least theoretically possible that some others among the overwhelmingly African-American voters listed might be Hart voters, Harris declares unequivocally, "The Selective Preparation for Purge Targets U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen."  

Cohen's own campaign team has minimized the prospects both of Hart and of prospective Republican opponent George Flinn (who still must overcome a Republican primary opponent, 2010 GOP nominee Charlotte Bergmann), noting in the latter case that the racial and political ratios of the newly redistricted 9th are virtually the same as those of the old 9th and are overwhelmingly Democratic on what would appear to be at least a two-to-one basis.

Local Democratic activist Darrick Harris said that Bev Harris had assembled the list of possible erasures from lengthier voter-registration data he had supplied her at intervals since 2010 when the two of them were in frequent contact regarding challenges to the August 2010 election results.

"This is nothing new. I'm not even all that up in arms about it, all by itself," Darrick Harris said, relating the current issue to a series of gaffes that he says have bedeviled the last several elections in Shelby County, usually to the disadvantage of Democrats. He shies away from accusing anyone of intentional illegality (though reserving judgment on the matter) and suggests that factors of incompetent administration and malfunctioning technology are involved.

The real root of the problem he imputes to Republican aggressiveness in purging the voter rolls, something that coincides with the GOP's wish, evident also in the passage of photo-ID legislation, to prune away at the Democratic voter base.

Meanwhile, Holden and Meyers insist that nothing is amiss, that all 488 voters cited by Bev Harris are good to go at the polls in 2012, regardless of what the quoted list says. But as the issue develops, somebody at the Election Commission may have some 'splainin' to do.

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