Memphis school board appointment bill on hold amid talks with state lawmakers

A group of people wearing business clothes sit in chairs in an office with blue walls.
Six school board members for Memphis-Shelby County Schools meet with three state lawmakers representing Memphis on Feb. 14, 2024, at the state Capitol. Their agenda included pending legislation from Rep. Mark White and Sen. Brent Taylor, both Republicans, to authorize Gov. Bill Lee to appoint additional members to the board. (Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools)

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A state lawmaker is giving the Memphis-Shelby County school board time to devise an improvement plan before pursuing legislation to empower Gov. Bill Lee to appoint up to six new members to the locally elected body.

Rep. Mark White said he has spoken with several current board members and the district’s incoming superintendent, Marie Feagins, since Chalkbeat reported in early February that he’s consulting with the state attorney general’s office on a school governance bill aimed at his home county.

“I’ve told them you’re going to have to manage the district better, and they indicated that they understood,” White said during a recent interview in his office at the state Capitol.

The Memphis Republican wants the board to deliver an action plan to him in March, before the legislature is expected to adjourn in April. The plan, he said, should include how district leaders are addressing challenges with literacy, truancy, graduation rates, teacher recruitment, underutilized school buildings, and a backlog of building maintenance needs, among other things.

“Our city is begging for change when it comes to education, and I want to know that this school board has a plan,” said White, who chairs a House education committee.

If the board doesn’t deliver, White plans to file his legislation in the next few weeks.

Several board members have said White’s proposal smacks of state overreach — but they want to collaborate with the lawmaker, who is also locally elected, to advance the school district’s work. Still, there’s confusion about exactly what White wants and when he wants it.

“We do have to come up with those agreements or deliverables that he’s talking about,” said board member Mauricio Calvo, who tried unsuccessfully in January to get the board to set priorities for its next superintendent.

“It’s not just because he is saying that. It’s because we want to get to better outcomes for children, for students,” Calvo continued.

Althea Greene, the board’s chair, did not respond to Chalkbeat’s questions about the status of the talks. She sent a statement through the board’s external communications firm saying, in part, that “we are currently in the process of engaging our community with Rep. White regarding his plan.”

White has cited prolonged frustration with the board’s leadership. His legislation would keep the board’s current elected members, but add others through Lee’s appointments based on recommendations from local officials and stakeholders.

The East Memphis lawmaker met with six of the district’s nine school board members, including Greene and Calvo, during a previously scheduled Feb. 14 meeting at the Capitol, which he called “very productive.”

Nine people wearing business clothes stand and pose for a portrait with artwork on the wall in the background.
Six school board members for Memphis-Shelby County Schools pose with Rep. Mark White and Sens. Raumesh Akbari and Brent Taylor during a meeting at the Capitol on February 14, 2024. (Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools)

Days after, White spoke by phone with Feagins, a Detroit school leader picked by the board in February to be the next leader of the state’s largest school system. Her selection came in spite of White’s 11th-hour request that the board keep interim Superintendent Toni Williams and delay hiring a leader for a second time.

Michelle McKissack, another school board member at the Capitol meeting, is hopeful for more discussions with state officials that include Feagins. More specifically, she wants to understand White’s expectations.

“I would love to have a meaningful meeting with Rep. White,” she told Chalkbeat Thursday, “but I have no idea what his plans are.”

Feagins, who is scheduled to start her new job by July 1, impressed board members during interviews with booklets that included her review of the Memphis district. (Chalkbeat’s request for these public records has not yet been filled.)

Though she does not yet have a contract, Feagins was introduced at Tuesday’s board meeting and has been meeting this week with Memphis leaders. She is also building a plan for her first 100 days on the job, according to a press release from the board’s communications firm.

White has emphasized the need for urgency and expects to meet with Feagins next week to “get better communications.”

The Feb. 14 meeting with school board members included two other state lawmakers representing Memphis: Democratic Sen. Raumesh Akbari and Republican Sen. Brent Taylor. Taylor is listed as the Senate co-sponsor of White’s proposed legislation.

“We all want the same thing: for our kids to read and write and compete on a national and international level,” Akbari said.

“But the elephant in the room was the pending legislation,” she continued, “and I suggested that we set that aside because I don’t think it’s necessary. School board members are elected by the people, and their constituents should hold them responsible.”

White agrees.

“The best fix would be if the citizens of Memphis elect some strong school board members,” he told Chalkbeat. “Five seats are up [for election] this year. We shall see.”

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 Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.



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