City school board races this year have unusual prominence

Ordinarily Memphis school board elections are little noted. This year's races for five of the board's nine positions are a different story, and there are several reasons why.

First is a panoply of high-profile issues, notably the substandard showing of too many schools on state and federal rating lists in recent years. Second is the simple fact that after the top-of-the-ballot presidential contest, there are relatively few races, other than those for the school board, to engage voter attention.

All of the school board races on this year's ballot are contested, and almost all of them have generated some degree of heat.

Position 1, At-Large: Incumbent Wanda Halbert is standing off a field of five challengers, at least two of whom former city attorney Robert Spence and Pastor Kenneth Whalum Jr. have substantial support. Also in the race are Menelik Fombi, Mary Taylor Shelby, and Chuck Thompson.

Halbert's middle name is "Outspoken." She has engaged in running criticism of various school officials, including former Superintendent Johnnie Watson, and initially opposed the appointment of current Superintendent Carol Johnson. She has been a strong voice for vetting the school system's programs but opposed this year's significant budget cuts a position that critics underlined when figures showed she led the board in travel expenses. Her major theme is "parental involvement" befitting her own status as a single parent.

Spence, whose stump style has evolved from an awkward beginning, was initially presumed to have support from Mayor Willie Herenton, who has chosen, however, not to get involved. He also boasts of several other establishment supporters ranging from Sheriff Mark Luttrell to several past and present City Council members to University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari. He argues that his connections will enable him to create "strong working relationships between parents and educators, among government agencies, and with corporate and community leaders."

Under considerable fire from Halbert and others because his children attend private schools, Spence faltered at first, then began answering that he was not the custodial parent. His listed priorities include "early childhood education, fiscal accountability, parental responsibility, and community partnerships."

Whalum, the unconventional pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church who bills himself as the "keeping-it-real preacher," has campaigned with the same volatility and panache that characterize his pulpit style. While his major competitors are reticent about school closings, Whalum calls forthrightly for the sale of moribund school properties, on the condition that the "manufacturing businesses" that buy them employ local residents.

"Responsibility, Revenue, and Realism": That's how Whalum sums up his major themes.

Candidate Thompson, the only non-African American in this group, has proposed some radical revisions in how the school system operates from "boot camps" to raise problem students' grades to a dismantling of the district's transportation system to the introduction of computer-based "I-books" for general student use.

Says Thompson of these and other proposals: "These measures, if instituted, would make the schools better yet cut the budget by millions of dollars! Any other candidate on the ticket is headed for financial crisis. They all want more money."

Another candidate is Menelik Fombi, who likes to tell audiences that he is a son of the late civil rights leader A.W. Willis and who boasts diverse educational experience as an instructor in the Ohio prison system. He is a forthright advocate of consolidation but only if it encompasses all governmental operations at the city and county levels. Fombi, who was one of the first elementary school students to integrate the Memphis City Schools in 1961, also talks up health and nutrition issues, as well as courses in African-American history and women's history.

Then there is Mary Taylor Shelby, a perennial candidate who has long operated something called "Students, Mothers, and Concerned Citizens" as a vehicle to further her political and social interests. A steadfast opponent of school closures and an advocate of lowered standards for lottery scholarships, Taylor Shelby has in recent years attempted an informal alliance with dissident Republicans. Says she: "I will not view our educational system as a problem that cannot be solved."

District 1: Incumbent Willie Brooks and challenger Stephanie Gatewood have had a relatively good-natured contest. Both ran for the position last year, when Brooks, a FedEx human resources administrator, defeated lawyer J. Bailey in a runoff for the right to succeed the late Dr. Lee Brown.

Gatewood, who is involved with mentoring programs, takes a firm position against the federal No Child Left Behind program. Brooks is just as firmly for it. Beyond that and the issue of paddling, which Gatewood opposes and Brooks supports, shades of gray distinguish the two candidates' positions on most issues.

Controversy of sorts emerged late in the game with last-minute charges from Gatewood supporters that several notable names appearing on Brooks' campaign literature as endorsers were questionable, either carryovers from last year's race or used without authorization. But there is no question that Brooks has good support from establishment types.

District 3: Incumbent and current board president Patrice Jordan Robinson has seen her race with two articulate challengers Juanita Clark Stevenson and Anabell Hernandez-Rodriguez Turner turn into something of a free-for-all, with Robinson's opponents taking her to task for her involvement in last year's abortive effort to fund expensive new chairs for board members. The incumbent has also been one of the board's high-end spenders on travel.

She faces the election's only Hispanic candidate in Turner, who is PTSA president at Overton High School and a member of the parent group at Wooddale High School. She is an advocate of strengthened language instruction. Newcomer Stevenson, a "family specialist" who bills her candidacy as the opportunity for a "fresh start," is parent liaison for Winchester Elementary and the mother of four children.

District 5: The Rev. Herman Powell Sr. is one contender for this seat, vacated by one of the board's most influential members, Lora Jobe. Dr. Jeff Warren, who is backed by Jobe, is the other.

Warren had been one of the few candidates to take a staunch position against corporal punishment, an issue which Jobe has done much to get on the front burner. He also emphasizes "strong principals" as the basic means to improving education and has proposed advancing the role of physical education in the curriculum.

Powell has not advanced a detailed litany of proposed changes but emphasizes his history as a lifelong Memphian and promises to be thoughtful and balanced in his approaches.

District 7: Incumbent Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge Jr., one of the current board's most controversial members and the center of several ongoing dust-ups, is opposed by challengers Terry L. Becton and Tomeka R. Hart.

Though Sandridge has been front and center on a number of issues in his determined opposition to any closings of traditional inner-city schools, for instance he has gotten more attention of late for his on-again, off-again status as an employee of county government. Sandridge was fired from his county job last week.

Sandridge was already facing determined opposition from Hart, an attorney and former teacher, who has the backing of the "New Path" reform group. "Dealing with the community and communicating are the real issues," she says. In defense of his 17-year tenure, Sandridge has put on something of an advertising blitz and is counting on what is, for better or worse, abundant name recognition.

Though Becton has participated in forums, she has largely been overshadowed by the other two candidates. She promises a "fresh start," with an emphasis "on academics rather than attitudes and social agendas."

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