Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Unified School Board Leaves Superintendent Question Hanging

Posted By on Tue, Jun 26, 2012 at 11:51 PM

The unified 23-member Shelby County Board of Education met for five hours and 15 minutes Tuesday but accomplished little if anything.

The board accepted — which is not the same as approved — the sweeping and potentially monumental 200-page report of the Transition Planning Commission for the 2013 merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, the biggest school system merger in American history.

Following that, for the second week in a row, the board engaged in tedious, fruitless discussions of procedural details that gave strong evidence that this body is incapable of implementing any of the controversial recommendations in the TPC plan, including, most of all, the selection of a superintendent by this fall.

Hour after hour, motion after motion, a handful of members led by Martavius Jones and Jeff Warren engaged in a baffling series of discussions. They were aimed not at selecting a superintendent, only at the nature of the selection process. Near the end of the meeting, members agreed to appoint a committee to work out details of the process. Meanwhile, superintendents John Aitken and Kriner Cash sat side-by-side watching the show, occasionally making what appeared to be friendly comments to each other. Cash also introduced several new principals for Memphis City Schools next year. Otherwise, they were spectators.

The do-nothing option appears to favor Aitken, who has a contract until 2015, over Cash, whose contract ends next year. But guesses are just that — guesses — where this board is concerned. If Aitken does get the job, it could just as likely be through board inaction as action.

At least half a dozen times during the session, members voted on procedural matters that served only to get them back to where they had been several minutes earlier. By the end of the evening, the board had essentially undone the work it had done in a similar marathon meeting last week that seemed to force the question. At one point, there was a long discussion, led by Jones, on whether the "ad hoc" committee to start the selection process (not MAKE the selection) should have 5 members or 23 members, which Jones favored. It only took five MCS members to surrender the MCS charter in 2010, but that point did not come up.

As it now stands, the board will do some sort of superintendent search ending some time later this year, but only if the committee can agree on the conditions of the search itself. Warren, author of one of the evening's motions to have such a search, lamented at one point that it could be January before a selection is made. Board member Betty Mallott, who had offered a resolution to begin the transfer of administration of the schools to Shelby County for the sake of expedience, withdrew her motion after the five-hour mark.

The show could run a while longer. The 23-member board will serve until August of 2013, when it will be replaced by a seven-member board elected this year but installed next year.

Bottom line: two superintendents, neither one out of the running, and still the possibility that neither one will get the job. As for the TPC plan, the recommendations for school closings and personnel cuts and privatization and overcoming a starting deficit of $57 million (assuming costs can be cut, which appears unlikely) appear to be lacking anything resembling consensus on a board that looks impossibly divided and at sea on matters both small and large.

UPDATED: Wednesday morning.
With a nod of gratitude to my former colleague Jimmie Covington, an elaboration on the move to the seven-member school board in 2013: The seven members who are elected Aug. 2 will take office after the election results are certified. A complicating factor is that four members of the old city and county boards are among the candidates, including David Pickler and Kenneth Whalum. If any of these old board members are elected to the new positions, vacancies will be created on the old boards on the 23-member board. The County Commission will fill those by appointment. Then on Sept. 1, 2013, the old board members will go away leaving the seven-member board. However, County Commission members have announced plans to create a 13-member board. They would do this by appointing six additional members, who would run for the posts either in November 2013 or in 2014.

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