In the final Work Session of the Shelby County School Board 2.0, I can't have been the only person dismayed by the comedy of errors that unfolded. This mixture of inherited, appointed, and elected individuals just can't quite seem to keep it together.
Blunder after blunder.
There was Commissioner Mary Anne Gibson carefully explaining the root cause of the transportation problems to the man now in charge of transportation, Hitesh Haria. It was kind of her to take the time to clarify just why parents were so upset. Except for her fundamental misunderstanding of how budget cuts work, and how they impacted who was eligible for bus service. You see, according to Commissioner Gibson, the expansion of the hilariously-titled Parent Responsibility Zone (handily-acronymed as "PRZ", since it's not a "thing" until it has an "acronym") has resulted in an increase of what she actually called "new riders". There are just so many new families using bus service now, that Central Office should understand that these folks are frustrated because of their difficulties navigating transportation services.
Except for the fact that the changes to the transportation system were specifically designed to save money. The way that the changes saved money, partly, was that the number of eligible riders was reduced. Commissioner Gibson correctly understood that the PRZ had been expanded, but failed to understand what that did - that by increasing the number of parents now responsible for their children's transportation, there was a reduced number of riders. There are definitely new riders, but it's not due to an expansion of bus service - any new riders would just be new to local schools or new to a neighborhood far enough way from school that bus service is provided. Commissioner Gibson had it right that parents were frustrated, but her explanation belied some very fundamental misunderstandings about the impact of some of her votes for budget cuts in transportation services.
Commissioner Kevin Woods had a real doozy, too. He started off okay - after all, he brands himself as a fiscal conservative, actively looking for any trace of waste, fraud, or abuse. In the discussion about the delayed paychecks to about 130 teachers, what Commissioner Woods wanted to do, we can only assume, was ask about the level of attention paid to the possibility of accidentally paying people who shouldn't be paid. And his question did actually lead to the newsworthy acknowledgment that Central Office accidentally paid a dead person. Computers! Data entry! [Insert cuss word here!]
But Commissioner Woods couldn't have been more disrespectful in how he asked his question. My description just above is quite generous, as it turns out. What Commissioner Woods actually asked was how the school district was trying to prevent giving anyone an "extended vacation". I'm not sure there could be a more awful way to characterize the current financial status of those employees that the district has been forced to lay off. It's not just the terminations - that Commissioner Woods voted for - it's the hurry-up-and-wait approach that the School Board took to its critical staffing decisions. Take, for example, a Central Office person who had been working long enough to be eligible for retirement but who was not selected for the positions to which they applied. Not only were they not eligible for the much-touted severance packages because they were eligible for retirement (this, for the record, is called "being forced into retirement"), but because of the timing of the district's selection process and the timing of the state retirement office, such an employee would wait for at least two months for any income after their last paycheck. Such an individual would not be eligible for unemployment either, because their employment ended with the school year and they had filed retirement paperwork. They just had to wait.
The School Board did not exactly take care to make sure that their terminated employees, employees who had devoted their careers to Memphis City and Shelby County Schools, were treated as well as they should have been. Add to this shabby treatment, Commissioner Woods' classification of any errant payroll payment to such an employee as contributing to that employee's "extended vacation".
This is the same Commissioner Woods whose seat is now in question, and who must stand for election again since Chancellor Armstrong threw out the August 2012 election results for the District Four race. Commissioner Woods will again face former MCS Commissioner Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr. After Commissioner Woods' low blow to the district's laid-off employees, Commissioner Whalum had no comment. Because he wasn't there. Because while he still collects his School Board paycheck, Commissioner Whalum is currently (still) refusing to perform a critical function of elected officials by not attending the public meetings of the body on which he serves. Good luck, District 4!
Unfortunately, the mis-steps were not limited to our inherited, elected (?), and appointed public officials. New cabinet member and Chief Innovation Officer Brad Leon, proudly thirty days on the job, still is not quite sure how Innovation Zone schools have been selected. The Innovation Zone is, of course, his primary area of responsibility. Thankfully, Dr. Rod Richmond was there to fill in the School Board (again) about the process for selecting Innovation Zone schools.
Other high points: the ongoing inability of Commissioners to correctly identify whether a staffer's first name is actually that staffer's first name or last name, a refusal to compare an initial charter school application to a revised charter school application in order to understand what deficiencies were addressed, and an apparent lack of memory of the Board's recent reauthorization of a charter school in the bottom 5% of the state (wait, there are charter schools that perform WORSE than traditional public schools? yes. yes, there are. and, um, you voted for them.)
An actual real-life gold star should go to outgoing Commissioner Sara Lewis who has apparently been running a free, volunteer taxi service for carless parents who are told to report to the Gray's Creek facility for certain student services. Commissioner Lewis noted that no public transportation is available to the office building, and that some parents just cannot easily get out there. Hopefully, a solution will be forthcoming.
Shelby County School Board 2.0 will end this week after its last business meeting. Shelby County School Board 3.0 will be back down to 7 members - well, six anyway - for the September meetings. The old SCS and MCS board members are not the only ones who have been doing some posturing in the two years since Judge Mays brokered the 23-member School Board deal. Often, the County Commission's 2011 appointees tried to cast themselves as the voices of reason, above the fray of the bickering of the entrenched legacy school boards. Less than all of them are correct. My take is that we're about to find out if they actually have picked up enough skills to govern: to ask the tough questions, to take the tough stands, to stand up to the public, or the superintendent, or to the state as needed. Too often, the folks who are keeping their seats have been happy to deflect, to distract, to roll their eyes, to step out of the room for important votes. Once there are only seven (six) Commissioners left, it will be much more difficult to avoid more individualized public scrutiny.
I, for one, am hopeful that the robust discussions and full airing of important issues to which we've become accustomed will continue.