Leadership holding the pursestrings to Memphis schools will undergo a major shakeup this year as Shelby County voters elect a new mayor and a mostly new county commission.
With the final ballot set, three Republicans and two Democrats are seeking to replace outgoing Republican Mayor Mark Luttrell, a fiscal conservative who will end his eight-year administration in August. The Shelby County Election Commission will certify and set the ballot at its meeting Tuesday.
And with seven out of 13 county commissioners opting not to seek re-election — as well as contested races in all but three districts — most faces will be new on the county’s highest elected board.
The players are important to public education because they approve the final budgets for Shelby County Schools, which is Tennessee’s largest district, along with six suburban districts. (Part of the local taxpayer funding approved for Shelby County Schools also gets funneled to schools under the state-run Achievement School District.)
The primary election is on May 1, with the general election on Aug. 2.
As he began his last year in office, Luttrell called on the next iteration of leaders to invest more in early childhood education and classes that focus on science, math, and technology. And he told Chalkbeat that the next commission needs to continue to ask “tough questions” of Shelby County Schools.
“My concern is that we’re spending $11,000 per child in Shelby County, and we’re not seeing the results,” he said.
Candidates vying to succeed Luttrell include Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, a Democrat, and Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir, a Republican.
Harris has echoed Luttrell about the importance of early childhood education and also wants more investments in school facilities and career centers. He will face off in the primary election against former county commissioner Sidney Chism.
Lenoir, who has been endorsed by Luttrell, has said the next mayor must look at public safety and education through the lens of economic development. He is running in the Republican primary against County Commissioner Terry Roland and Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos.
The upcoming departure of several commissioners knowledgeable about Memphis schools will leave a void for others to fill. They include board chairwoman Heidi Schaefer; David Reaves, a former board member of Memphis City Schools; and Melvin Burgess, an employee of Shelby County Schools.
Commissioners Van Turner and Willie Brooks will run unopposed.
Of the 33 newcomer candidates, a handful have been vocal about education issues impacting Memphis.
J. Racquel Collins is the sole Democrat running for District 1, Roland’s current district that encompasses Millington and the surrounding area. An assistant dean at St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, she favors universal pre-K and programs that prepare students for both vocational-technical careers and college.
Sam Goff, the only Republican running for District 7, has said that while he wants to see county government paying down debt, education isn’t the place to make cuts. “ We’ve got to be able to get enough teachers per student that they can manage a class and find a way to help those kids that are lagging that don’t have the opportunities that other kids get,” said Goff, a former mortgage loan officer and president of the Evergreen Historic District Association and the Midtown Memphis Development Corp.
Several candidates have direct ties to education. Tami Sawyer is a Teach For America administrator running in District 7. She will face off in the Democratic primary against Stephanie Gatewood, a former board member with Memphis City Schools, and Eric Dunn, an education advocate and graduate of Northside High School. Sharon A. Webb, also a former city schools board member, is the only Republican running for District 9.
Jocelyn Stone, a senior at Central High School, got to hear some of the candidates last week while helping to register her fellow students to vote. This election will be her first time to vote, and she’s interested in the county commissioner races because that board controls funding for Memphis schools.
“I want to do my research this year,” Stone, 18, told Chalkbeat. “We can feel like our vote or voice doesn’t matter, but it does.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information about candidates.