Two Memphis candidates for mayor have education backgrounds. Here’s what you should know

Two Memphians with education credentials are running to beat incumbent Jim Strickland in the city’s October mayoral race.

Tami Sawyer, 36, announced her bid on Thursday. She’s the director of diversity and cultural competence at Teach for America’s Memphis branch and a Shelby County Commissioner, elected to her first term last year.

Sawyer joins contender former Mayor Willie Herenton, 78, the city’s first elected African-American mayor. He is a charter school founder who was also a city schools superintendent and an elementary school teacher. Restauranteur Lemichael D. Wilson is also running against Strickland, a lawyer who won his first term as mayor in 2016.

The city mayor’s legal authority over public schools is limited. The city school board’s vote in 2010 to dissolve the city district led to a countywide referendum vote to merge the city and county school systems. The historic change shifted responsibilities for funding K-12 education completely to the Shelby County Commission, working with county Mayor Lee Harris.

However, a mayor isn’t without power to steer conversation and dictate spending. Strickland said in 2016 that “we no longer fund the city schools, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of the education business.”

Strickland has drawn criticism from some Memphis education advocates for not directing city funding to Shelby County Schools programs. He campaigned on universal preschool for Memphis’ youngest students, and while that hasn’t happened, the city and county did recently pass a joint ordinance to expand needs-based prekindergarten by 2,000 seats.

Here’s what you should know about Sawyer and Herenton:

Tami Sawyer, who said increasing support for students and schools would be one of her top priorities during her campaign:

  • Joined Teach For America-Memphis in 2015 and overhauled the chapter’s curriculum to help teachers understand how racism and poverty affect their students and community.
  • Is endorsed by board member Miska Clay Bibbs.
  • As a first-time county commissioner, has pushed for criminal justice reform, especially for juveniles.
  • Grew up in Memphis and went to St. Mary’s Episcopal, a private school. After graduating from the University of Memphis and spending about a year in law school at Howard University, Sawyer worked for the U.S. Navy in Washington, focusing on diversity hiring practices.

Willie Herenton:

  • Heads the charter network W.E.B. Du Bois Consortium of Charter Schools. Two of his six schools closed last year due to poor performance.
  • Has pushed the county commission to support his plan to build a juvenile rehabilitation facility to provide medical and mental health care, and educational and vocational training.
  • Left the helm of the former Memphis City Schools in 1991 after 12 years as its superintendent and more than 40 years in city schools.