After a relatively quiet school board race in Memphis two years ago, this year’s run promises a lot of action as 15 people vie for four seats.
Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest school system, is stabilizing its finances and setting a course for how schools are managed, so the winners will have significant impact on how the district proceeds.
The election, set for Aug. 2, is likely to draw in hefty funds from organizations that favor charter schools and more school autonomy as the Memphis district decides how to bolster low-performing schools and manage several school types.
Some board members and the superintendent they hired, Dorsey Hopson, say they support a transition to a system where school districts operate schools more like charters, giving them more autonomy. But they have at times worked to undermine such a transition, often referring to charter schools as negative competition.
And the school board has often been at odds with the Tennessee Department of Education, which has in recent years handed over about two dozen Memphis schools to charter operators.
In the midst of that, the district is recovering from years of severe budget cuts. Last year, for the first time since the merger of county and city school districts, Shelby County Schools started its budget process without a shortfall.
Of the five seats that were open in 2016, only one was contested, but incumbent Stephanie Love won it. The school board race is non-partisan and therefore does not have a primary election.
Here are the candidates running in district 1, which covers downtown and parts of Midtown:
- Katherine Ayers is a cancer education program manager at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who previously taught seventh grade science at Hutchison, an all-girls private school. Her work at St. Jude includes programs that focus on reducing health and education disparities in the Memphis area. She also has two children in Shelby County Schools.
- Chris Caldwell, the incumbent, is a financial consultant and vice president at Raymond James, a financial services firm. A White Station High School graduate, he was originally appointed to the board in 2011, and was elected in 2012 and 2014. He serves as the budget committee chair and was chairman of the board last year, helping to oversee the investigation into improper grade changing in the district. He has three children; two have graduated from Memphis public schools and one is a junior at Central High School.
- Michelle Robinson McKissack is editor at Memphis Parent Magazine and is on the board of directors for Crosstown High School, a charter school opening this fall focused on project-based learning. She is also an inaugural member of the state Department of Education parent advisory council created in 2016. She’s a graduate of White Station High School and has four children in Shelby County Schools.
- Michael Scruggs, a Central High School graduate, is a social studies teacher at W.E.B. DuBois Schools, a charter school network, and was featured on The Ellen Show and others last year for his daily motivational chant with students.
Four candidates are running in district 6, which covers Whitehaven and southwest Memphis:
- Shante Avant, the incumbent, is the board’s current chairwoman and a deputy director for the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis. Last year as chair of the board’s procurement committee, Avant oversaw the district’s disparity study for contracts with businesses owned by women and people of color. She has a daughter enrolled at Bellevue Middle School.
- Roderic Ford is also running for a state House seat and formerly ran for county clerk.
- Minnie Hunter (no further information available).
- Percy Hunter, a Fairley High School alum, is the pastor of Christ United Baptist Church. He was recently the parent and community engagement coordinator for Green Dot Public Schools, a California-based charter network that operates four state-controlled schools in Memphis.
District 8, which includes East Memphis, Berclair, and Cordova, is the least crowded race with just one challenger for the incumbent:
- Jerry Cunningham is a retired Memphis City Schools teacher and former commercial real estate broker and business owner. He has also taught at HopeWorks, a nonprofit adult education program, since retiring. He said the school board needs “a fresh group of citizens who are dissatisfied with the stagnant progress under [Superintendent] Dorsey Hopson’s guidance, and who believe our city’s students are capable of achieving proficient scores on standardized tests.”
- Billy Orgel, the incumbent, is the CEO of Tower Ventures, a company that builds and owns telecommunication towers in Memphis. He has served on the board since 2012 and has served as board chairman twice. As chair of the board’s facilities committee, Orgel has overseen several school openings and closures, and helped guide the district’s facility maintenance needs. He attended Richland Elementary and is a graduate of the independent Memphis University School. He has three children.
Five candidates are seeking the district 9 seat, which includes Orange Mound and Parkway Village areas:
- Rhonnie Brewer leads Socially Twisted Media and is the founder of Memphis Startup, a which provides resources and support to small businesses. She also co-hosts the “What’s Happening Myron Show,” a show about news, current events, and entertainment on Shelby County Schools’ radio station, 88.5 FM.
- Alvin Crook is a special officer at Memphis Light, Gas and Water. He serves on the Downtown Parking Authority and is a representative for the Tennessee Young Democrats and a former president of the Shelby County Young Democrats. He has one son.
- Joyce Dorse-Coleman is a secretary at Apostolic Pentecostal Temple Church and has served as an officer for several parent volunteer organizations at schools where her seven children and five grandchildren were students. She also served on a committee formed to successfully keep Dunbar Elementary School from closing.
- Kori Hamner is a former Memphis teacher, teacher coach with Teach for America, and later a director of teacher support with Shelby County Schools during a time of massive changes in state standards. She now works for the Achievement Network where she advises school districts and charter management organizations around the nation on their curriculum, assessment, and professional development strategy. She has one daughter.
- Mike Kernell, the incumbent, has served on the board since 2014. He is a Messick High School graduate and served in the state legislature for nearly 40 years. His two children attended public schools.
This story has been updated to include Rhonnie Brewer, whose approval from the Shelby County Election Commission was not reflected in the commission’s initial listing Friday morning.
Correction, April 6, 2018: One of Chris Caldwell’s children is still in high school. A previous version of this story said all three of his children had graduated from Memphis public schools.