The Commission's SCS Vote: Confounding or Common-Sensical?

Why did suburban County Commissioners shy away from having their constituents represented on a 13-member Shelby County Schools board? This and other riddles are explored here.

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Basar on the spot at Germantown
  • JB
  • Basar on the spot at Germantown

Questions remain in the aftermath of Monday’s pivotal vote on the Shelby County Commission In favor of a Shelby County Schools board composed of 9 single-member districts, excluding the six municipal areas with independent school systems.

That vote was made possible by the late defection Monday of Commissioner Steve Basar from the ranks of Republican suburban commissioners.

The suburbanites had previously deadlocked the decision process by insisting on an opposing format of 7 single-member districts, including representation for the area of Germantown containing what Commissioner Mark Billingsley called three of that municipality’s “flagship” schools.

As it happened, Basar was the featured speaker at Tuesday night’s meeting of the East Shelby Republican Club and took something of a verbal battering from several club members, who accused him of failing to stand with his party and of deserting the cause of the three Germantown schools, all of which are within the current District 1 Commission area which he serves

Basar on the Defense

Basar was clearly taken aback, but he put up a stout, if sometimes sputtering, defense of his vote, the gravamen of which was: There weren’t going to be seven votes for the suburbanites’ preferred format of 7 districts, come what may.

Ironically, it had been Basar who, as he noted in his defense Tuesday night, had proposed an amendment at Monday’s Commission meeting in favor of both the 7-member format and voting rights for the west Germantown area containing the three affected schools.

According to agreements reached between the Shelby County Schools board and the governing institutions of the six suburban municipalities, the three schools in question — Germantown Elementary, Germantown Middle, and Germantown High School — are to be administered by SCS rather than by the soon-to-be Germantown municipal school district.

The reason for that, as noted by SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson when he proposed the agreement formula late last year, was that those three schools, considered together, now have a majority student population from the county’s unincorporated areas.

However reluctantly, the suburban members of the County Commission had accepted this result in order to certify the final agreement on the municipal-schools issue and to be done with a long-standing lawsuit pitting the Commission against the municipalities. The impasse of the last few weeks on how to constitute the SCS board was something of a residue of that larger, now resolved disagreement.

Plan 9A, a 9-member Board variant prepared by Commissioner Mike Ritz, had fallen one vote short at Monday’s Commission meeting, and it became clear, as Basar noted to the East Shelby club members Tuesday night, that Plan 7B, a Billingsley alternative that included “the Germantown peninsula,” had no chance of passage.

Basar’s decision at the tag end of Monday’s Commission meeting to ask for reconsideration of 9A was reportedly prompted by assertions from the Shelby County Election Commission that the Election Administrator’s office needed a full month’s advance notice of district lines in order to complete preparations for SCS board elections, the filing deadline for which is April 3.

Inasmuch as everybody’s memory of election glitches in 2012 stemming from last-minute preparations is still keen, the deadline issue loomed large. And, since there were no more Commission meetings scheduled before the ad hoc March 3 decision date, the Commission was faced either with coming up with something definite on Monday or going to default, in which case a 13-member board format previously cleared with supervising Judge Hardy Mays, would prevail.

After some back-and-forth concerning a proposal by Commissioner Heidi Shafer to schedule an emergency special-meeting date before April 3, Basar made his motion to reconsider, and 9 members it was.

Why not go to the default?

That leads to Question Number One, which was on the mind of at least a few observers and participants at Monday ‘s Commission meeting: Why, instead of resignedly (or grumpily, as the case may be) giving up the ghost and accepting the 9-member format, didn’t Basar and his suburban colleagues merely let the issue go to default and accept the 13-member formula?

That 13-member format had been developed a year or so ago — ironically, by the anti-municipal-schools coalition composed of Republican Ritz and the Democratic majority — and it was based on the premise of an all-county unified school district.

That meant that one of the major issues being wrangled over Monday — whether suburban areas should be represented on the SCS board — would be settled in favor of the suburbanites if the default 13-district format prevailed.

Question Number Two: What was the magic of a 7-member board, in pursuit of which the suburban Commission members were inclined for so long to go to the mattresses?

Yes, the current 7-member board — a remainder, more or less, of the provisional 23-member pre-merger school board, minus the 16 holdover Memphis City Schools and suburban Shelby County School positions — might be working more or less efficiently. And yes, it gives marginally greater representation to the outer-county suburbs — three members versus four for Memphis.

But that version of a 7-member board was due for expiration anyhow in the proposed 7B plan, which made no allowance for any suburban municipality other than by incorporating a small sliver of Germantown. So then, what else might have made for such passionate dedication to the idea on the part of the suburban commissioners?

In the interests of discretion rather than mystery, the behind-the-scenes skinny — accurate or not — is that some of the community’s traditional philanthropic sources (who double as generous donors to political campaigns) prefer the 7-member format, for whatever reason, and have let the fact be known.

According to this theory, that’s why the suburbanites on the Commission decided to accept the fait accompli of 7 instead of letting the default — and universal county-wide representation on a large SCS board — occur.

Goldsworthy: SCS Districts "Fair"

But maybe not. Commissioner Mark Billingsley, the originator of the “peninsular-inclusion” formula, was asked afterward what his attitude toward such a 13-member board would be. Too large, was the substance of his reply.

As for the defeated peninsular idea itself, Billingsley, in sponsoring it, may have been somewhat more Catholic than the Pope. Asked about his plan during and after her appearance Wednesday as the featured speaker at a Kiwanis Club luncheon, outgoing Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said she had disagreed with Billingsley and the other supporters of the idea.

“Fair is fair,” she said, citing her own reluctance, during last year’s negotiations over the administration of school properties, to commit her city's district to long-term acceptance of students from outside Germantown’s city limits.

And Goldsworthy, who is not running for reelection this year after serving 20 years as mayor, pointed out that Houston High School in Germantown includes within its student body as many as 1,000 residents of the Collierville school area. To extend the peninsular concept in that direction would have obliged the Germantown School Board to include residents of Collierville within its voting districts.

So maybe the questions we posed are not conundra at all but simply matters of common sense.

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