Ken Hoover is powerful witness to the central message of his campaign for Shelby County Schools Board member.
An involved parent on the board really would make a difference, and Mr. Hoover has children in county elementary, middle, and high schools.
What was blazingly obvious in his first debate with 12-year incumbent David Pickler, now looking for another four-year term, was that Mr. Hoover doesn’t see children as political ammunition and the district as a power base. He sees the children as most parents do – as individuals whose particular needs matter, their schools as the cornerstone of their development as members of a family and a community and their board of education’s primary responsibility as supporting parents.
Depending on a Red State
Both Mr. Hoover and Mr. Pickler support special school district status for Shelby County Schools as the fail-safe strategy to prevent school consolidation in the future (although safeguards in a new charter could actually be stronger), but it was the challenger who seemed to espouse the most fundamental conservative values.
While Mr. Pickler has coveted for years the chance to possess taxing authority, Mr. Hoover summed it up in a way that is hard to deny. “As a conservative, it’s intuitive to me that the more people who have taxing authority, the higher taxes will be,” he said.
In addition, lowering or raising the tax would require Tennessee Legislature approval, and while Tennessee is now a steady red state, it begs the question of what will happen if Shelby County Schools finds an unreceptive Democratic majority on Capitol Hill.
Unchecked and Unbalanced
Mr. Pickler suggests that lobbying people 210 miles away to approve county school tax recommendations “provides checks and balances,” but he can’t quite make a cogent case for why that’s preferable to driving 20 miles to downtown Memphis to talk to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners for the same checks and balances.
The willingness to drive to Nashville is testament to how badly the board’s relationship with county government has deteriorated under Mr. Pickler’s leadership as board chairman, and even one of his strongest allies in Shelby County Government refers to him as “petulant on his best days and pompous and disagreeable on his worst.”
As for taxing authority, it’s possible to even imagine a scenario in which after aggressive annexations by City of Memphis (which is being considered now in City Hall), the tax base for Shelby County Schools could effectively be the county’s towns, which would mean that the tax rate for county schools could end up at a level that chokes taxpayers to death. While this isn’t a scenario suggested by Mr. Hoover, he makes the point that taxing authority of the district ultimately cuts the district off from the Shelby County tax base, and that historic break could result in serious, unforeseen problems.
Over the years, parents appearing before the board have learned that they’ll receive little respect, particularly when it involves a question about a decision by Mr. Pickler. In Shelby County School Board meetings once compared to Star Chamber sessions, parents regularly find themselves being treated dismissively and defensively.
For that reason, Mr. Hoover’s call for basic accountability and transparency in Shelby County Schools is long overdue. There have been disturbing things going on in the county district for some time – from cronyism to preferential decision-making to secret attendance zone decisions to race-based decisions – but because our news media are more focused on Memphis City Schools, so much has gone unreported and uninvestigated.
In the debate, Mr. Hoover, like most parents we know, expressed his concern about the children in Memphis City Schools, suggesting rightly that a plan could be reached that neither harms the city or county district. That is possible, according to city officials, if they could find a willing and good faith partner at the helm of the Shelby County Schools Board.
Concerning the attendance zone issue that infuriated many county school parents, a new map was railroaded through the system without any parent ever seeing it. Most troubling to us was Mr. Hoover’s comment that Mr. Pickler called in “board members…one at a time to meet and ask questions” about the new zones. If that is the case, Mr. Pickler violated the Tennessee Public Meetings Act, according to the Shelby County Attorney’s Office. The punishment for violation: the voiding of the action taken as a result of these illegal meetings.
Mr. Pickler acknowledged a new found concern about transparency and pointed to the postings of school board agendas to the district’s website. Unfortunately, unlike the county and city government websites, we can’t find the backup documents for each agenda item, a report on the ultimate actions of the board or online webcasts of the meetings.
In keeping a favorite campaign tactic – to stir up fear and scare constituents – Mr. Pickler dependably brings up consolidation and offers up an ad hominem attack of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., formerly a county mayor whose administration believed that it could work with Mr. Pickler but eventually threw up its hands. We’re pleased to say that Mr. Hoover, who has his own concerns about consolidation, takes a more reasoned approach, one without vitriol or pandering.
No Enmity or Enemies
While we found much in Mr. Hoover’s comments to commend, here’s one that caused our Germantown colleague to sign up as a supporter on the spot. “Memphis City Schools is not the enemy,” he said. “We have the same objective. We do have differences…but there are so many areas where our interests are aligned…I feel sometimes that our district has not been as good a neighbor as it could have been.”
Truer words have never been spoken, and they are exactly the kinds of words that we hear parents of county school students saying all the time. They have no interest in their leaders doing anything to harm students inside Memphis and they tire of rhetoric that uses the city district as whipping boy, because they understand that every child matters and every child counts.
That philosophy alone would be a breath of fresh air on the county school board, particularly if it replaces an incumbent who sucks all the oxygen out of the room and who already has had 12 years to implement any policies that he espouses.