Saturday, November 10, 2012

In Other Litigation . . . Whalum!

My post earlier today about Commissioner Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr.'s Twitter incident reminded me that we're still waiting to hear how his School Board race turned out.

The August 2011 decision from Judge Mays explained how the parties (which included the former Shelby County School Board and Memphis City School Board) agreed to merge the school boards.  It's hard to give a short version of this, but everybody keeps their seats until the date of the merger in July 2013.  In addition to the 7 SCS Commissioners and the 9 MCS Commissioners, the Shelby County Commission appointed 7 new folks.  For a total of 23!!!!  Those 7 new folks come from geographic districts which will comprise the new School Board districts of the merged school district.  So this past August, while the municipalities were moving forward with their referenda, the "unified" district had elections for the 7 recently-formed seats for terms that will extend beyond the merger date.  Also in the mix is the very real possibility that the County Commission will add more seats to the School Board at some point after the merger date.

Clarifying:  for the School Board election in August, the 7 appointees could run for the seats to which they were appointed, and their challengers could be other (former) SCS or MCS School Board Commissioners (who would otherwise "fall off" of the Board next summer) or non-incumbents.  School Board Chairman Billy Orgel ran unopposed.  School Board Commissioner Vanecia Kimbrow decided not to run.  The other appointees all ran for their seats with mixed results.

Appointed to the District 4 seat, Commissioner Kevin Woods had to have known that Commissioner Whalum would be interested.  Commissioner Whalum is the pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church, and my sense is that among those who support him, they strongly support him.

It turned out to be a very close election, with Commissioner Woods winning by 108 votes.  The margin was large enough not to require a recount (originally reported as 88 votes, but certified at 108 votes), but Commissioner Whalum sued for a re-vote.

Admittedly, the August 2012 election was a calamity for the Shelby County Election Commission.  Incorrect ballots, and what seemed to be general incompetence surrounding some of the redistricting is a huge cause for concern.  My initial perception was that the problems seemed to occur mainly in the county, and not so much in the city.  And Commissioner Whalum seemed to be hoping that these overall problems may portend some judicial support in his dispute.

However, at a recent court hearing, it turns out that there were problems with ballots in District 4.

Now here's the Stand for Children part.  Stand for Children, like many other organizations, put out a list of its electoral picks.  They picked Commissioner Woods for the District 4 seat.  Stand for Children is still a relatively new organization in Tennessee, and is seeking to establish its relevancy and its muscle.  Well, Stand for Children sure made a splash in the August 2012 elections.

It's reported that Stand for Children spent $153,000 on the School Board races, and at least $40,000 in District 4.  School Board races are generally funded on much less (approximately $10,000 on the high end), so this much of an infusion is notable in local school board races in this area.

I think there are reasons to be concerned about Stand for Children, not the least of which are its out-of-town donors seeking to influence local School Board elections.  At the national level, Stand's founder, Jonah Edelman was recorded using strong anti-teacher union language and eventually forced to apologize for his (sarcastic, gloating, and disrespectful) tone.  Locally, Stand is clearly very "reform" oriented.  Though I'm not convinced that Stand is really a grassroots organization of any kind, it appears that the organization does listen to its recruited members - at least locally. 

But I don't think Stand did anything illegal or improper under the current version of campaign finance regulations.  I don't agree with the current version of campaign finance regulations, but I think Stand abided by them.

I'm not a fan of Commissioner Whalum, but I'm not exactly thrilled by Commissioner Woods, either.  Commissioner Whalum's attendance at School board meetings is spotty, and his press conferences are numerous.  Commissioner Woods' children attend private school, and I find him to be inconsistent in his philosophy.

All of that said, Commissioner Whalum can be good for comic relief and this lawsuit gives him lots of opportunities for one-man press conferences.  It will not be good for Memphis if this election was decided by the Election Commission's errors.  And we do believe in the rule of law, after all.  And so we sit, hoping for a quick resolution by Chancery Judge Kenny Armstrong.

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