Candidates for Shelby County Schools Board of Education answer tough questions ahead of election

Find information on voting and the current election at the end of this article.

Memphis-area parents and students are struggling with tough decisions, fear, and uncertainty as schools and districts finalize their plans to reopen in August.

Shelby County Schools’ board makes many of SCS’s system-wide decisions.

Those decisions may soon be made by new leadership. Board positions are on the ballot for the August 6 election.

“There’s a lot going on right now. But an election is still happening, and people need a chance to hear directly from candidates on the huge issues that will affect education in Memphis this school year,” said Caroline Bauman, community engagement strategist for Chalkbeat.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit, education-focused news organization with a Memphis-based affiliate.

Its team organized two virtual town halls to give families that chance to hear from candidates. Parents, students, school administrations, and other interested Memphians asked questions and listen to responses to pre-selected questions.

The meetings were held July 16 and 20. Video recordings are available here and here. To date, they have over 9,000 combined views.

“That tells us this information is really needed, and people are finding it,” said Bauman.

The town halls were not debates. They were discussions around constituents' biggest needs and concerns. Twelve of the 15 school board contenders attended.

Chalkbeat’s event partners were the National Civil Rights Museum and the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope’s Education Equity Task Force and Youth Council.

“MICAH reaches a different group of folks throughout Memphis,” said Bauman. “It was a good fit to partner together and host two really great forums rather than plan different events and split audiences.”

Top-of-mind concerns for the town hall attendees were reopening plans, health and safety, whether kids can actually learn online, class sizes, and roadblocks to home schooling like digital access and working parents.

For the organizers, inequity was also top of mind.

“What is really being thrown into sharp relief right now with the pandemic [is that] it’s not necessarily breaking our systems. It’s showing how badly they have been broken, and how much we really need to fix them,” said Dahlia Townley-Bakewell, one of the events’ moderators.  
Dahlia Townley-Bakewell is a 15-year-old incoming sophomore at White Station High School. On June 20, she helped moderate a town hall featuring candidates vying for positions on the board of Shelby County School. (Submitted)

Students to the Front

Students were in the town hall audience and were key to the event’s development.

“Elevating student voices is core to what we do at Chalkbeat. After all, they are some of the folks most affected by education decisions,” said Bauman.

MICAH Youth Council members contributed questions ahead of the event, and students Townley-Bakewell and Briana Massey moderated the public Q&A portions of the events.

Townley-Bakewell is 15 years old and an incoming sophomore at White Station High.

She said she and her peers are obviously concerned about reopening and their own safety, but they’re also worried about their teachers. They’re worried about digital access for their lowest-income friends and how they can empower recent graduates to vote.

As the election and new school year approach, MICAH’s Education Equity Task Force is working to include more youth voices in the process and continue advocating for parents and students.

“As MICAH continues to advocate for education equity, we really value hearing the voices of the people—the student voices, the parent voices,” said Alexis Gwin-Miller, who co-chairs the task force with Katy Spurlock.

A Parent’s Worst Fear

Chalkbeat and MICAH are seeing the same concerns as Townley-Bakewell from parents. 

"I think parents are feeling incredibly stressed about having to make such a big decision," said Spurlock of the choice between in-school or online learning prior to SCS's announcement to reopen online only. 

Parents and students are worried about a loss of social-emotional learning, free meals, basic medical care, and counseling that schools provide, especially for low-income students.

“We are also hearing concerns about how to boost literacy, especially among Shelby County’s youngest readers, and how to create more equitable discipline systems,” said Bauman.

In the town hall meetings, attendees expressed additional concerns that existed before the pandemic. They asked how candidates will work with constitutes and what they'll do about the $500 million in deferred maintenance owed to school buildings.

“If you’ve got lead in your [school] drinking water and you consumed lead, then that would probably negatively affect your education,” said Townley-Bakewell.

Separate and Unequal

Though laws have changed, schools in the U.S. are still segregated down racial and economic lines. Those lines enforce deep divides between students who have and those who have not.

“Sometimes people [will] say, ‘Well, how did it get like this?’ That's when you just have to say, ‘Well, let me just say the truth. Look, schools have [been] segregated in Memphis for a long time.’ It's just what the truth is,” said Gwin-Miller.

All of the event partners are concerned about deepening divides in and after the pandemic.

Low-income children were already at higher risk for falling behind. Now, their parents are more likely to send their kids to school because they have no other choice. They're less likely to be able to work from home, hire tutors, or homeschool due to their own gaps in education.

Townley-Bakewell noted that low-income students of color are more likely to have under-resourced schools and communities, and that lack of resources leads to poorer school performance and fewer opportunities in adulthood. Spurlock, Bauman, and Gwin-Miller agreed.

“If people can't get out of the cycle of poverty in Memphis, especially as children, then what does that look like for the future?,” asked Gwin-Miller. “What does it look like with the divide between urban and suburban, black and white?”

“… we've got to find a way to serve the needs of all children in our county from the poorest to the most affluent,” added Spurlock.


The 411 on Voting In Shelby County

Early voting for the current election runs through August 1. Election day is August 6.

Shelby County voters will make their choices for state and federal congressional primaries, as well as local elections for General Sessions Court Clerk and school board members. It also includes a vote on whether Carma Dennis McGee should be retained as a judge in the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Find dates, times, and locations for early voting here. Find your districts, assigned polling place, current races, and the list of candidates here. Voters can cast their ballots at any early voting site but must vote at their assigned location on August 6. 

Polling places are taking extreme COVID-19 precautions, including giving voters a disposable stick to make their selections in the booth and a free pen to use throughout the process.

If voters are still concerned about safety, absentee ballots can be requested up to one week prior to any election. Find more information here.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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