A mix of new and familiar faces will represent Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County on a re-configured Shelby County school board this year.
When the new nine-member board is sworn in this September, its members will have the task of governing a school system that is, for the first time in three years, not facing a massive upheaval. Last year’s merger of the city and county schools was followed by the creation of six new districts in the suburbs of Memphis.
Stephanie Love, Scott McCormick, and Mike Kernell will join the school board. Incumbents Chris Caldwell and Shante Avant retained their seats. William E. “Billy” Orgel in District 8, an incumbent and former board chair, and Miska Clay Bibbs, a newcomer in District 7, ran uncontested for their seats. The seats held by board chair Kevin Woods and Teresa Jones were not up for election this year. That means five of the nine members will be returning, and that each of the incumbents won their race.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II has said the board needs to focus more on academics and less on logistics in the coming years.
“I’m excited. It’s going to be different with more people, but we’ll still have the same collective spirit,” Hopson said.
Board candidates were also focused on the quality of schools. “Academic achievement is really what I am focused on,” said Shante Avant, a candidate for District 6. “Those strategies of how we can lessen the achievement gap are really what I am excited about.”
After the merger and demerger, “there needs to be more focus on building the depth and quality of the education they’re providing. More focus around solid reading and writing skills,” said voter Antoinette Brady.
But the district is still rapidly changing, as the state-run Achievement School District and the charter school sector continue to grow.
The nine-district board is new to the county. A 23-member board comprised of both suburban and Memphis leaders governed the merger, and the current board has seven members, including two from the new municipal districts. The nine-member board represents Memphis and the parts of Shelby County that are not part of the new municipal districts, which each have their own school boards.
Candidates drew funds and support from both local and national advocacy groups. Avant, Caldwell, McCormick, and District 6 candidate Roshun Austin had each received contributions from a political action committee created by the Memphis Chamber of Commerce that supports local candidates who it believes support job growth. And Tennessee chapters of school choice advocacy groups StudentsFirst and Stand For Children were among the groups endorsing slates of candidates.
On Thursday night, in a house in Frayser, candidate Love’s supporters had supplied a cake and dressed in matching t-shirts. Before any results had come in, Love’s pastor asked her how she was doing. “Nervous,” she said.
Across town, candidate Caldwell’s supporters gathered at Central BBQ in downtown Memphis. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and board chair Kevin Woods joined the gathering later in the evening.
Caldwell won his race against Freda Garner-Williams for a seat in District 1. Caldwell, who had the support of business and education advocacy groups, received 59 percent of the votes.
The race was among the most heated in the county: This is the second time that Caldwell and Garmer-Williams have faced off in a school board election. In 2012, he beat Garner-Williams 48 to 41 percent. Garner-Williams, a professor and former teacher, had the support of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association. Garner-Williams would have been the only educator on the board. The education association has opposed many of the district’s current policies accountability.
Avant, a vice president at a local nonprofit, won the race against challenger Jimmy Warren in District 6, 76 percent to 24 percent. Avant’s support for a plan to build a new school in the Whitehaven area, where many schools have been closed in recent years, earned her the goodwill of many voters.
Love, a cosmetologist and parent, won her race against Teddy King and Anthony Lockhart in the race for District 3, which includes Frayser and parts of unincorporated Shelby County. Love had 39 percent of votes, while King had 31 percent and Lockhart had 30 percent of votes.
Frayser is home to many of the schools in the state-run Achievement School District, which takes over schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state with the aim of dramatically improving them. Love, who has two children in an ASD school, said that “the biggest challenge will be making sure Shelby County School remains Shelby County Schools and the ASD doesn’t take over anymore schools. But I know we’ll get it done.”
In District 9, Mike Kernell, a former state representative, won his race, with 48 percent of votes. Austin, a local nonprofit executive, garnered 39 percent of votes and Damon Curry Morris had 13 percent of votes.
Former city councilman Scott McCormick beat David Winston for the District 5 seat, which includes Cordova. McCormick had 75 percent of votes.
Two candidates work for other school systems within the county: Clay Bibbs is the community engagement director at Green Dot, a charter school, and Teddy King, a candidate in District 3, is the community engagement manager at the state-run Achievement School District.
The story has been updated to reflect the most current poll results.