Tennessee lawmaker to file legislation to add appointed members to Memphis school board

Man in a suit and tie gestures while speaking into a mic.
Rep. Mark White speaks during a House education subcommittee meeting on Feb. 15, 2022. The Memphis Republican said Tuesday he plans to file legislation aimed at the locally elected governance of Memphis-Shelby County Schools. (Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat)

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A Tennessee lawmaker said he plans to introduce legislation giving Gov. Bill Lee’s administration the power to appoint up to six new members to the board of Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

Rep. Mark White of Memphis cited prolonged frustration with the board’s locally elected leadership when explaining his plans to Chalkbeat on Tuesday.

The nine members currently on the board of the state’s largest school district would remain in office under the proposal.

And the additional members would be appointed later this year based on recommendations from local officials and stakeholders, said White, a Republican who represents parts of East Memphis and the suburb of Germantown.

“I’m very concerned about the district’s direction, and I just can’t sit back any longer. I think we’re at a critical juncture,” said White, who chairs a powerful education committee in the House.

In a statement Tuesday, board Chair Althea Greene said White’s proposal is unnecessary.

“We may have had some challenges, but more interference from the General Assembly is not warranted at this time,” she said. “We have to stop experimenting with our children.”

White’s comments come as the school board is days from selecting a district superintendent to end a tortuous 18-month search process. All three finalists came from out of state last week for final public interviews.

The proposed bill also represents another attempted state foray into oversight of Memphis, spotlighting historic tensions rooted in race, politics, and power, in which both sides claim the moral high ground.

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White said he is unhappy with the board’s handling of the superintendent search for a district where strong, stable, and timely leadership is especially critical. Most MSCS students are considered economically disadvantaged and continue to significantly trail state benchmarks in reading and math following devastating pandemic-related academic declines.

“I’m concerned about the three people they’ve whittled it down to, and I’m just not impressed,” said White, who did not specify the candidates’ shortcomings.

There are “highly qualified people in Memphis who know how to improve the system,” White added.

His criticisms echo recent frustrations from some local educators and community members at the prospect of an out-of-state candidate leading Memphis-Shelby County Schools. Some have called for a local candidate or for the board to permanently hire interim Superintendent Toni Williams, the district’s former finance chief.

Board member Michelle McKissack expressed surprise about White’s plan and his comments about the finalists. She praised their qualifications.

“This has been an extraordinarily robust search, and we have listened to all members of the community every way we know how to,” McKissack said.

Adding board members — particularly appointed candidates who don’t have constituents to answer to — would only complicate board governance, she said.

“It’s not going to make board operations any easier when you have a 15-person board,” McKissack said, pointing to the challenges of the previous 23-member body that oversaw the historic merger of the city and county school districts and created Memphis-Shelby County Schools a decade ago.

She added: “They think they have a problem now? Well then get ready.”

White and Sen. Brent Taylor, a Memphis Republican, expect to file their legislation this month and have been working with the state attorney general’s office “to get the language right,” White said.

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The legislation could affect upcoming nonpartisan school board elections in which five seats are up for grabs. Greene is the only incumbent to have pulled a petition for the August election since the filing opened on Monday, according to Shelby County Election Commission officials.

White drew a distinction between his proposal and a 12-year-old state initiative to take over low-performing schools, mostly in Memphis, to place them with charter school operators under the oversight of the Tennessee Achievement School District.

“This is not about taking over schools. It’s about putting in place stronger governance over the elected bodies for low-performing districts,” he said.

The Memphis school board is responsible for hiring the superintendent, but also charting the direction for the district, often by prioritizing how to use the $1.2 billion it receives each year, plus the additional hundreds of millions in one-time federal funds. Board members also play a role in addressing issues of their community and educator constituents.

The board struggled with its first superintendent search for a successor to Joris Ray, who left in August 2022 amid a scandal over allegations that he abused his power and violated district policies. Last spring, board members were dissatisfied with the slate of final candidates and chose to scrap the list and reboot the selection process.

The board’s second search last fall generated 22 applicants, according to the search firm the board hired to oversee the process. Just one local candidate, Angela Whitelaw, the district’s top academics chief, was among the five finalists. Following the guidance of their own evaluations and the community’s input, the board selected three finalists:

It’s not the first time that White has introduced bills to give the state the power to intercede in local matters.

He successfully sponsored legislation in 2022 that forced the Memphis district to cede four schools to several nearby suburban districts, including in Germantown, which serves mostly white and affluent students. The move reignited persistent criticisms that the decade-long tug-of-war over the valuable school properties was essentially about race and class. Ultimately, Shelby County commissioners increased taxes, in part to help pay for a new high school for the urban district’s mostly Black students from low-income families.

White also asked the Tennessee attorney general to weigh in last year about potential conflicts of interest for Keith Williams, the executive director of a local teacher union in Memphis who was elected to the board in 2022.

Memphians have long been wary of Tennessee lawmakers who have repeatedly singled out Memphis on education matters. For instance, a controversial 2019 law created a private school voucher program that only applied to Memphis and Nashville, even though local officials overwhelmingly opposed it.

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Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach her at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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