Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Biggest Vote of Their Lives

Posted By on Tue, Dec 14, 2010 at 1:40 PM

Tomeka Hart
  • Tomeka Hart
They do a fairly thankless job for very little money, get a lot of flak, sit patiently through some interminable meetings, and next week will probably cast the most important vote of their lives.

The nine members of the Memphis City Schools Board of Education, barring a surprise development, will vote December 20th on whether to abolish the city school system's charter, effectively merging it with the Shelby County school system. Approval would be subject to a Memphis referendum in 2011.

The implications are far-reaching, which is another way of saying that nobody, definitely including me, knows exactly what they are. My best guess is the answer will involve lawyers. The author of the surrender resolution, Martavius Jones, says it is too close to call at this point.

So who are these board members? Well, they're six women and three men with a lot of higher education and deep roots in Memphis and the city school system as students, parents, and employees. Some have political aspirations, some don't. They earn $5,000 a year plus $1,499 in expenses, or about one-fifth as much as members of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission. Their only employee is Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash. They meet every other week and the meetings sometimes last five hours. They don't have funding authority — that's the city council's job — but they do present a budget.

Here's a closer look.

Freda Williams is the current chairman and is often interviewed on television news reports. She has been a board member since 2007. A former MCS teacher, supervisor, and administrator, she currently is a part-time professor with Walden University. She graduated from LeMoyne Owen and earned advanced degrees at the University of Memphis. She has two sons. She has not run for any other city or county offices. Her position on the charter is "gathering the facts" but leaning against charter surrender.

Stephanie Gatewood is one of the most politically ambitious board members. She ran unsuccessfully for city council in 2007 and is a candidate to replace the late Ulysses Jones in the Tennessee General Assembly. She is a University of Memphis graduate who works for the UM Center for Research in Education Policy. She has two children attending MCS. She has not stated her position on charter surrender.

Betty Mallott joined the board in 2007. She is a past president of the Ridgeway High School PTO and a former teacher at Melrose High School. She worked in the private sector for 30 years including 20 years with Holiday Inns Worldwide. She has undergraduate and graduate degrees from U of M. Her position on surrender is unstated. She has not run for other political office.

Patrice Robinson joined the board in 2000. She is a supervisor at MLGW and worked as a trainer for MCS for six years. She got her college degree at U of M and a master's at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She has three children. Her position is unstated.

Martavius Jones is one of the two outspoken proponents of charter surrender. A registered financial adviser who owns his own firm, Jones joined the board in 2006. He is a graduate of Howard University. "This is an opportunity to hear from the voters," he said of the potential referendum. "This is the only true way to get a barometer reading of the public's will."

Tomeka Hart is the other outspoken proponent of charter surrender. Hart, a graduate of Trezevant High School, has been on the board since 2004. She has an undergraduate degree from UT-Knoxville and an MBA from Kenesaw State University. She is an attorney who graduated from the University of Memphis law school. She is president and CEO of the Memphis Urban League.

Jeff Warren joined the board in 2005. A physician, he has degrees from Yale University and Duke Medical School. His three sons attend MCS. Warren's public comments indicate that he is seeking a solution to the standoff with Shelby County short of charter surrender.

Sharon Webb is another politically active board member. She joined the school board in 2007 and ran for mayor the same year. She ran again in the special mayoral election in 2009. She also served on the Memphis Charter Commission. She lost her school board reelection bid this year so she is currently a lame duck. A former United States Postal Service employee, she is pastor of Life Changing Word Ministries and has a bachelor's degree from Crichton College and ministerial advanced degrees. She has four children. She has indicated her support for charter surrender.

Kenneth Whalum Jr. is probably the board's most outspoken member, often taking positions against Cash and the majority of his colleagues. He is opposed to charter surrender. He joined the board in 2007 and ran unsuccessfully for city mayor last year. He graduated from Melrose High School and Morehouse College and has a master's of divinity degree from Memphis Theological Seminary. He is pastor of The New Olivet Baptist Church and has three grown sons who graduated from MCS.

Jones said Tuesday his current reading is three members for surrender (himself, Hart, and Webb), three opposed (Whalum, Robinson, and Williams), and three undecided (Warren, Gatewood, and Mallott).

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