The only competitive race in Shelby County’s school board election this August has strong ties to a state school turnaround initiative that the board does not oversee.
Stephanie Love, who was elected to the board in 2014 and has established herself as an outspoken critic of the state-run Achievement School District, faces a challenger who works in an ASD school. Sharon V. Fields is an office manager and family coordinator at Libertas School of Memphis, a charter school that opened this year. The Montessori school replaced early grades of Brookemeade Elementary School, which the ASD absorbed because of its poor performance.
The district that they are vying to lead, District 3, includes much of Raleigh, Frayser and some of Millington. Charter operators under the Achievement School District are scattered throughout Memphis, but the schools directly run by the state district are in Frayser, and Raleigh was the site of a contentious fight about the ASD’s efforts to overhaul schools there.
Love made efforts to block the ASD from taking over more Shelby County Schools a central part of her campaign message in 2014. She has four children, two in Shelby County Schools and two in schools that have been taken over by the state.
Fields says it doesn’t matter which district runs the school; parents just want quality education for their child.
“It’s not about being in ASD or Shelby County Schools,” she said. “No matter what school it is, we need to make sure it’s running properly.”
Their contest could center on parent engagement, one of the biggest challenges facing schools in a city where parents often work several jobs while living in poverty.
Fields, who raised three sons as a single mother, said her experience at Libertas positions her well to help Shelby County overcome that hurdle. “I have the opportunity to witness the barriers that hinder our children’s growth, development and education,” she said. “As a family coordinator, I have created programs in my current school which are aiding our families to overcome those barriers that hinder education.”
Love, a licensed cosmetologist, said parent engagement has increased on her watch. “I feel like we have made, in District 3, some tremendous improvement in making sure our parents are informed,” she said. “We’ll have a solid foundation to do what we need to do,” including build relationships with county commissioners, the local funding agents for the school district.
She said she was particularly proud of efforts to ensure that Shelby County Schools is the first point of contact for parents of students at schools being considered for takeover by the Achievement School District. Before, she said, parents with questions on the transition were met with silence from Shelby County Schools.
“Until those kids are handed over, those students belong to us,” she said. “It was still our responsibility to make sure we receive those answers from the ASD.”
Shelby County’s school board oversees the policies and funding for instruction and school buildings in the district. The board also is responsible for its buildings occupied by charter operators, including Libertas in the ASD. Though the students in Libertas are not considered part of Shelby County Schools, the board recently was challenged to come up with funds for an expensive roof repair at the ASD school, testing the sensitive dynamic.
The board does not have governing power over ASD schools and, in the district’s recently proposed budget cuts for the coming year, administrators cited enrollment decline because of ASD takeovers to be a major hit to its revenue stream from the state.
Candidates vying for the four other board seats open this year are running unopposed. They are are Miska Clay Bibbs, Teresa Jones, Scott McCormick and Kevin Woods.
Rhonda Munn Banks initially filed for a petition to get on the ballot against Bibbs, but did not gather enough signatures. Aaron Prather, an initial challenger to McCormick, filed for a petition but changed his mind, saying that he intends instead to pursue other opportunities related to education in Shelby County. Coby V. Smith, a longtime activist and recent candidate for City Council, also filed for a petition but decided against running as another opponent to Love.
The other four seats on the nine-member board will be up for election in 2018.
One of panel’s first tasks after the the August election will be making long-term decisions on the use of schools that are operating well under capacity and reconfiguring buildings across the district to meet the demands of population shifts. An initial report showed the district is under capacity by 27,000 students. A facilities report on how to reduce the district’s footprint is due to the school board in September.
The deadline was noon Thursday to file petitions with sufficient signatures. Early voting will be July 15 through July 30. The new voter registration deadline is July 5.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional comments from Sharon Fields about her perspective on the Achievement School District and its role in Shelby County and corrected to reflect the number of children she has.