Even as Election Day looms on Aug. 4, the nine-member school board for Shelby County Schools will remain essentially intact this fall, with only one contested race out of the five incumbents up for re-election.
Stephanie Love, a board member since 2014, and challenger Sharon Fields are seeking to represent District 3, which includes much of the communities of Frayser and Raleigh and some of Millington.
Running unopposed are incumbents Miska Clay Bibbs, Teresa Jones, Scott McCormick and Kevin Woods.
Chalkbeat recently spoke with Love and Fields about their ties to Memphis schools, as well as their positions on issues such as school closures, enrollment and funding challenges, and collaboration with the state-run Achievement School District (ASD), which now has control of 29 low-performing schools that previously were with the local district.
Question for Love: Your previous campaign called for decreasing the influence and expansion of the ASD. Has your view of the ASD changed since you’ve been on the board, especially since you now have children enrolled in an ASD school?
Love: Two of my sons were enrolled in MLK College Prep before I became a SCS board member. My belief is that every education option should be held accountable for the education of our children. It is my belief that local control of schools is in the best interest of our children.
Question for Fields: You’ve had children go through Memphis City Schools and now you work with the Achievement School District to involve parents in their child’s education. What can SCS learn from the ASD in turning around schools?
Fields: The question should not be what SCS can learn from ASD but how these two entities with the same mission, to ensure that our students have the best shot at the brightest future through the power of education, can collaborate and share best practices to ensure that every child is fully equipped with the educational resources necessary to compete in the workforce and maximize their potential.
Questions for both candidates:
Declining enrollment has affected everything from staffing to school closures and funding. What should the district do to stem the tide?
Love: We need to “right-size” the district. We have over 27,000 more seats than students. SCS needs to develop a strategic plan that looks at the allocation of each school’s funding. It is vital that SCS improve the academic performance of schools to stem further ASD takeovers.
Fields: We must foster environments that give our administrators and teachers the resources necessary to achieve. Shelby County Schools is the largest school board district in the state of Tennessee. We serve students from many different socio-economic backgrounds, cultures and creeds. We have to foster an environment that can lead to permanent, sustainable results that will attract and retain parents and students to our schools.
How can Shelby County Schools recruit more parents to return to its schools?
Love: We must give parents reasons to return. SCS needs to better understand the desires of parents as it relates to education. Developing a relationship with the City of Memphis, in that neighborhoods need to be safe, is critical in convincing parents to return.
Fields: Stronger school and community partnerships and relationships will instill a sense of pride that will allow children and parents to have a connection to school that runs deeper than just a place that they learn their ABCs. Our schools in the past were not just seen as public schools; they were truly community centers and hubs of learning, community mobilization and support. However, I believe our greatest recruitment effort will be RESULTS. Our record of results will speak louder than any rhetoric and serve as a beacon drawing parents and students to our institutions of learning.
The district has faced large budget deficits in recent years. What should Shelby County Schools be doing now to prevent another deficit next year?
Love: SCS is currently suing the State of Tennessee and also lobbying the Shelby County Commission for additional funding. SCS is currently putting in new accountability procedures and becoming more innovative with current funding.
Fields: I would begin lobbying the Shelby County Board of Commissioners now. Generally this process does not begin until it’s time for the budget to be approved. However, if we make ensuring SCS has the operating budget needed to operate efficiently a year-round lobbying effort, we are more likely to achieve success. Furthermore, consistent lobbying will allow for our message not to be cluttered by the political nature that always surrounds budget approval.
This fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is expected to release a long-awaited school facilities study and unveil a plan designed to better match the number of seats with the number of students. What are some solutions you would advocate for?
Love: I will wait on the study and plan first before reacting.
Fields: I would continue to advocate for solutions that balance the wants and needs of the community with the fiscal responsibility of SCS.
School closings are a community matter as well as a district matter, and some critics say district officials have sought to engage parents only after those decisions have been made. What is the role of parents in making those decisions? How do you plan to involve parents in the school closure process in the future?
Love: I take advantage of as many opportunities as I possibly can to inform parents of what is going on and to get their feedback. It is important for parents to remain involved. SCS has a Community Engagement Department that has been revamped and has been charged to help get and keep parents involved in issues affecting SCS such as school closures.
Fields: I would host a community roundtable that would include parents and stakeholders in the educational community. The role of parents in making the decision is essential, especially given that it is the parents and general community that elect representatives to speak their voice. I will work with families to reach a community consensus that represents the desires of the communities while addressing the fiscal responsibilities of SCS.
District 3 has the highest concentration of Achievement School District schools in the city. For the most part, Shelby County Schools has shied away from open collaboration with the state-run district. Do you think that should change? If so, what should that look like?
Love: SCS continues to communicate with the ASD. Open collaboration has not changed. SCS has become more aggressive in advocating for our schools. In the past, SCS has worked with the ASD to the disadvantage of students. In the future, SCS should work with anyone that works in the best interest of our children.
Fields: Yes, there are two organizations with the same mission. They should not see each other as negative competition but they should collaborate, share best practices, and work to ensure that in their quest to fulfill their mission they don’t hinder the other from doing theirs.
The Innovation Zone has been an effective answer to school turnaround work by the Achievement School District, but it’s an expensive program for a cash-strapped district like Shelby County Schools. What are some ways the district can duplicate those successes without the hefty price tag? Given the cost, should the iZone continue to expand?
Love: SCS has begun working on a more affordable and innovative model similar to the iZone known as the Empowerment Zone. Yes, the iZone should expand.
Fields: I think the answer to the question isn’t as simple as it seems. Currently, the state of Tennessee has one of the largest surpluses in the country. I would lobby our state legislators to work to bring some of that money to SCS to help support the iZone. I would never want to put our administrators and teachers in a situation where we are asking them to achieve more with less when they are already operating on bare-bones budgets. I would rather work to secure the funds and resources necessary for them to be successful.
The district is in the midst of overhauling its relationship with charter schools by creating a charter compact and has seemed to accept their place in the education landscape in Memphis. What role should charters play in improving education here?
Love: State law requires SCS to approve an adequate charter application. SCS has the power to deny and or close substandard charters.
Fields: Charter schools should continue to play the role that they have been playing, providing a unique learning environment, providing a rigorous learning environment that addresses the unique needs of the communities they serve.
What challenges do you see in the charter sector that need to be addressed in the compact discussions?
Love: Discipline, cultural competency, any exclusion of children with disabilities, suspension rate and the due process rights of parents.
Fields: I think the current framework is a solid start. However, I think that we need to continue to address the sharing of resources between SCS and charters to ensure that all of our schools have the necessary resources to produce the highest quality educational experience possible.
What are the overlap issues that SCS and the charter sector need to work on the most in order to work together to improve the city’s education environment?
Love: Get more resources for all students.
Fields: Honestly, I believe that all the issues facing SCS and the charter sector overlap. While they may be different in structure, all of our administrators and teachers face many of the same challenges. Both districts face challenges that require more resources than are readily available, and both have teachers and administrators that are often found having to address challenges in the classroom that originate at home.
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