Picking and Choosing 

Public bodies act to complete all-county school board, planning commission rosters.

Jim Kyle before the Commission

Jim Kyle before the Commission

As Shelby County commissioner Mike Carpenter prepares to take his leave of the commission (and of Memphis) to become Tennessee state director of StudentsFirst, an educational think-tank in Nashville, there's already a scramble on to become Carpenter's interim replacement on the District 1, Position 3 commission seat.

District 1 straddles city and county lines and is a predominantly Republican voting area. Appropriately, then, the six known prospects as of the moment are all local Republicans, well-known in both Memphis and its suburbs.

They are: George Flinn, the eminent radiologist and broadcast magnate who vacated his own commission seat last year to run unsuccessfully for Congress in the 8th District; John Willingham, another former commissioner, a local barbecue maven, and something of a perennial candidate in Memphis and Shelby County elections; Marilyn Loeffel, yet another former commissioner, a former Commercial Appeal columnist, and mainstay of the socially conservative group F.L.A.R.E.; Brian Stephens, a former member of the Shelby County Election Commission and a leading staffer for the pro-consolidation effort in last year's city/county referendum on the issue of merging the Memphis and Shelby County governments; Jack Sammons, a longtime former member of the Memphis City Council who served a stint as city CAO during the interim mayoralty of Myron Lowery in 2009; and Brent Taylor, another former city councilman who was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in the 7th District in 2002.

Of these six, the most active in soliciting votes from members of the commission, who will select the interim appointee sometime in October, is Flinn, who was very much in evidence in the county building last week pressing the flesh with commissioners and, for that matter, with members of the audience during the commission's interviews last Wednesday with prospective members of the soon-to-be all-county school board.

The other mentioned hopefuls have also made pitches to commission members in one form or another — with the possible exception of Sammons, who has largely been boosted by his backers.   

• It took several hours, but the Shelby County Commission, which began its deliberations in mid-afternoon, managed on Monday evening to fill the last seven places on a 23-member interim school board that will guide the development of a unified all-county school system up to the point of completed merger on September 1, 2013.

Given the fact that three members of the commission — Wyatt Bunker, Chris Thomas, and Terry Roland, all from District 4, which covers the non-Memphis portions of Shelby County — have made it clear that they oppose the whole process of a merger, everybody seems to have gotten something of what they wanted.

At one end of the commission's political spectrum, Democratic member Steve Mulroy¸ a professed liberal, unabashed supporter of consolidation and representative of the commission's District 5, an East Memphis-based area, confided that he saw his first choices named to several of the seats being filled, while Republican Thomas, an equally adamant conservative and representative of the suburbs, was able to exult late in the process, "We got one!"

The source of Thomas' satisfaction was the triumph of Kevin Woods, a rank-and-file Republican and employee of a technology firm, over Jim Kyle, the state Senate's Democratic leader, in the vote for the new school board's District 5. That outcome had come as something of a surprise when, in the course of a runoff ballot, Democrat Justin Ford joined the commission's six Republicans to create a narrow 7-6 edge for Woods over the favored Kyle.

That District 5 contest left a sour taste for several Democratic commissioners, notably Walter Bailey and James Harvey, who condemned what they saw as ad hominem insults directed against Kyle — particularly one from Bunker, who had denounced Kyle, a respected figure in the General Assembly, as "a political hack."

Roland, who had himself, early and often, challenged what he regarded as Democratic control of the vote process, would advise reporters afterward to keep in mind that his GOP colleague was under the effects of strong sedatives prescribed for severe back pain.

But Bunker, who had left midway during Monday's meeting to get medical attention and then returned, declined to withdraw his epithet after the meeting, when Chairman Sidney Chism made a point of lamenting comments that had been "out of order." The concept of "out of order" applied only to procedural matters, contended Bunker, who defended what he termed "freedom of speech" and said he had merely "called a spade a spade."

In the aftermath of the vote, Kyle congratulated Woods and accounted for the latter's victory by saying, "Well, he wasn't me." In a telephone conversation later, he would elaborate: "It would appear that the venom and partisan rhetoric of Washington have made their way down to our local level."

In what may have been an indirect comment on the District 5 contest, Chism afterward said of his advance wishes for Monday's vote, "I wanted four African Americans. I got five." (Woods is an African American.)

Although several other contests involved multiple ballots, none was as volatile as that for District 5. And none was as prolonged as that for District 1, which was resolved at the very end of the marathon meeting after commissioners could not agree on a choice when voting had first commenced.

Ultimately, the decision would go to Chris Caldwell of Morgan Keegan, a compromise choice who had, all things considered, more appeal across various lines than such other nominees as retired deputy Sammie Jones; assistant district attorney Christopher Lareau; the Rev. Noel Hutchinson; and Katy Spurlock of the Urban Child Institute.

Other choices were: city prosecutor Teresa Jones in District 2; Medtronic administrator Raphael McInnis in District 3; attorney Venecia Kimbrow in District 4; FedEx administrator Reginald Porter in District 6; and cell-tower entrepreneur Billy Orgel in District 7.

The seven board members will join the existing nine members of the Memphis City Schools board and seven members of the Shelby County Schools board. The newly constituted 23-member board will supervise the affairs of MCS and SCS beginning October 1st. Their exact tenure may extend only through the election of a permanent seven-member all-county board in August 2012 if, as special commission attorney Lori Patterson advised the commission Monday, federal judge Hardy Mays approves a consent decree allowing an early takeover by the elected board.

Patterson also said, in answer to a question from Commissioner Mike Ritz, who was back in attendance after a month's absence on business, that Mays might also approve an earlier-than-expected increase in the ultimate board's membership to 13 members. Under Mays' rulings and a memorandum of understanding signed by various parties, that possibility has already been enabled for the post-merger period.

• Meanwhile, only state Senate speaker/lieutenant governor Ron Ramsey's pick for the Norris-Todd planning commission has yet to be made at press time. The Shelby County Schools board last week named its five picks. They were: Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald; Ricky Jeans, a parent and member of the SCS "Hall of Fame"; Richard Holden, former SCS operations chief; former SCS administrator Katie Stanton; and former Shelby County commissioner Tommy Hart.

The 21-member planning commission will function only in an advisory capacity to the new interim all-county school board.

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