Ask Tomeka Hart about her career aspirations and she's quick to point out that she's not a politician. She says that two terms on the Memphis City Schools board will probably be the extent of her public service. If she's lucky.
Her political future depends on the voters of District 7, who for 17 years have been represented on the school board by the Rev. Hubon Sandridge. If Hart wins, the 33-year-old lawyer will represent a district that includes five of this year's No Child Left Behind failing schools. She says she is ready for the challenge.
"My main issue is and always will be the children," says Hart. "Every decision the board makes should be determined by the question, Does it benefit the students? If it doesn't, I will vote against it. We have to somehow get everyone involved in the education process, especially parents. If they won't come to the schools, we've got to go to them."
After graduating from Trezevant High School and the University of Tennessee, Hart moved to Georgia and taught junior high and high school business courses in Cobb County. When she decided to go to law school, her mother convinced her to return home and apply to the University of Memphis. "I was so surprised when I moved back and heard all the negative news about the school board," says Hart. "Our kids deserve so much better than what they are getting, which is a lot of grandstanding."
Cardell Orrin, Hart's campaign manager, says his candidate offers a "new perspective." Hart and Orrin plan to meet with community organizations, parents, and students during a door-to-door introduction campaign. Orrin says he wants to raise $25,000 for his candidate. Hart is also backed by a young professional organization called New Path, and Orrin has organized volunteers from that group and is meeting with potential contributors. Last week, there was a fund-raiser for Hart in the South Main district.
Although Hart has not talked with Sandridge, she knows his platform and his board history. "I don't see this as old versus young, but you have to have a change in ideas," she says.
The platforms of Hart and Sandridge, 54, are almost completely opposite. Sandridge supports corporal punishment; Hart opposes it. Sandridge vehemently opposes closing underpopulated schools, specifically Manassas High; if closing a school is in the best interest of students, Hart would support it.
"I do not think [this position] should be a lifetime appointment," she says. "If you haven't made a difference and empowered somebody else in that time, then it's time to move on."
But being in politics is a lifetime appointment, says Sandridge. "They're [Hart and other opponents] just campaigning. You don't just run a race to get out there. You have to be on the field every day," he says. "Don't get me wrong. I'm delighted to see the interest in these young people, but I don't ever intend to get out of the political arena, because it patrols our lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Sandridge has been criticized for his tumultuous relationships with other board members. His antics, including yelling, finger-pointing, and stormy walkouts, have all been chronicled by local television. Still, Sandridge doesn't seem worried about his reelection chances. "My constituency knows me. The record is what you run on," he says. "The arguing within the board is not always fighting, but what you call political debate. All you see on TV is me arguing, but I'm just a passionate leader. And at the end of the day [the media] does not show what happens positively."
Hart is single, has no children, and works for the law firm of Young and Perl as a labor and employment attorney. "What shocks me the most is when people ask why I care, since I don't have any children in the school system," she says. "Do we have to have kids in the system to care? We have to care because we will pay for not caring about these students, one way or another."