Memphis school board forum: Boosting literacy, ending teacher shortages top candidates’ priorities

A large group of people sit in church pews with large arches and stained glass in the background.
About 200 people braved flash-flood warnings and a downpour to attend a Memphis-Shelby County school board candidate forum at Idlewild Presbyterian Church on Monday, June 17, 2024. (Caroline Bauman / Chalkbeat)

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Improving literacy rates, preparing students to compete globally, and combating teacher shortages are among the top challenges facing Memphis-Shelby County schools, candidates for the school board said at a forum Monday night.

About 200 people braved flash-flood warnings and a downpour to attend the forum at Idlewild Presbyterian Church. It was organized by Chalkbeat Tennessee and the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope, and co-sponsored by the Memphis Education Fund and the Urban Child Institute.

Five of the board’s nine seats are up for election on Aug. 1. Four of the candidates — board Chair Althea Greene, Stephanie Love, Frank Johnson, and Mauricio Calvo — are incumbents.

They and 15 other candidates took questions from Chalkbeat and the audience on how they would guide Tennessee’s largest school district if elected.

Besides prioritizing boosting student literacy — nearly 80% of MSCS students aren’t proficient in reading, based on standardized test scores — some of the candidates said they would also focus on curbing teacher shortages and approach the city of Memphis about helping to fund the school system.

An audience question about what the candidates would do to listen to teachers’ concerns without their fearing retaliation sparked a number of responses. Most said that they would do that by fortifying relationships with the teachers’ unions.

Natalie McKinney, who is vying for the District 2 seat currently held by Greene, said that teachers must trust the process, but they “don’t have a process in place that they believe they can trust.”

The election comes at a time of transition for Memphis-Shelby County Schools. A new superintendent, Marie Feagins, took over in April, and is dealing with a number of looming challenges, including navigating the end of federal pandemic relief funds, budget cuts that will impact staff and programs, aging facilities, and new state accountability systems.

The current board sparred with Feagins last week over proposed staffing cuts that were communicated ahead of a budget deadline.

To see what the candidates said at the forum, watch the full video recording. And to learn more about the candidates, check out Chalkbeat’s school board candidate voter guide.

Bureau Chief Tonyaa Weathersbee oversees Chalkbeat Tennessee’s education coverage. Reach her at tweathersbee@chalkbeat.org.


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