In 12 Hours of Interviews, County Commission Picks Some Favorites for a Unified School Board

The plan is to appoint a 25-member interim board on Monday, but that could be up to U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays, who can say yes or no on Thursday.

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One candidate whiles away the wait as a spectator makes her feelings known
  • JB
  • One candidate whiles away the wait as a spectator makes her feelings known

It took all day and into the night, but the Shelby County Commission managed on Wednesday to interview almost 200 candidates, eager to serve in positions that may never materialize, on a unified all-county school board that may or may not come to pass in something like the foreseeable future.

Beginning at 8 a.m. and continuing until almost 8 p.m., assorted commissioners manned their seats on the raised stage of the county building auditorium, hearing out a field of aspirants that included unknowns and the well-known and members of both extant school boards, the one representing Shelby County Schools and the one representing Memphis City Schools. For each of 25 positions, commissioners voted to single out a maximum of three candidates for non-binding recommendation.

The full commission — minus, presumably, the three holdouts from District 4, the county’s suburban rim, who boycotted the process on Wednesday — will select 25 appointees on Monday. Maybe.

The validity of the process happens to be under challenge — from the state Department of Education as well as the SCS board, both of which are seeking an injunction against the appointments from U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays, who had a status hearing on the case scheduled for Thursday.

The three suburban holdouts from District 4 — Terry Roland, Chris Thomas, and Wyatt Bunker — have maintained all along that the process is illegal and that no appointments to a unified board can be made outside a different formula prescribed by the Norris-Todd bill, now a state law after its fast-track passage by the Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly in January.

A commission majority has maintained that it, and only it, has the authority to make appointments — and its calendar calls for an active board by August 2012, a full year earlier than Norris-Todd envisions.

A united SCS front against the commission’s action was broken Wednesday when Ernest Chism, a senior SCS board member, allowed himself to be interviewed for Position #7. The commission’s grateful acceptance of Chism’s acquiescence, culminating in his inclusion on the list of recommendees, was in contrast to the treatment given MSC board president Freda Williams, an outspoken merger opponent who was denied the commission’s recommendation for District 25.

Three other MSC board members, Betty Mallott, Stephanie Gatewood, and Martavius Jones, were recommended; all were part of the MSC majority favoring merger — though Mallott had not initially been a supporter of the charter surrender that, approved by Memphis voters on March 8, was the necessary prelude to consolidation of the two extant school systems.

Asked by commissioners about the frequently heard challenge, mainly from the boycotting District 4 commission members, that members of the MCS majority that voted for charter surrender had in effect jumped ship and should not be reappointed, Gatewood responded, "Are they here? They're not part of the process anyhow."

As Wednesday’s interviewing process wore on, commissioners came and went in shifts as their itineraries permitted — though a hard core, including Commissioner Mike Carpenter, who chaired the event, and commission chairman Sidney Chism, stayed at the task throughout. At several points, commissioners expressed appreciation at a candidate field so good that it seemed to them an embarrassment of riches.

Not every interviewee had smooth sailing, however. Even some of those whose credentials sparkled got snagged on a checklist of delinquent or overdue property taxes kept by Commissioner Mike Ritz. And there were some whose eagerness to appear distinctive backfired — like the youthful Nicholas Pegues, who in defense of his candidacy read aloud a politely worded form letter from a representative of the Queen of England, acknowledging receipt of an unsolicited letter from Pegues to Her Majesty.

Although Judge Mays has indicated he will not entertain specific motions on Thursday, he could conceivably avail himself of the opportunity to offer the commission a green light for Monday or to brake it with a red light.

Four District 12 candidates on their Ps and Qs
  • JB
  • Four District 12 candidates on their P's and Q's

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