All six suburbs in Shelby County are holding municipal school board elections. Enthusiasm for these races is very high outside of Memphis. In total, 64 candidates are running for 32 positions. The most contested race, Collierville school board Position 2, has drawn five first-time candidates despite the fact that a federal judge could throw out the results if he finds that the state law, which is allowing these elections to happen, is unconstitutional.
Position 2 candidate Margaret Kasperbauer, a retired teacher and financial consultant with grandchildren in schools in Collierville, says she’ll keep pushing for a Collierville school district no matter what, “Did we give up when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor?” she asked as she waved her yellow sign in the parking lot outside Collierville Church of Christ (the only early voting location in Collierville). “If the judge does not rule in our favor, we will go forward with this.”
Across the parking lot from Kasperbauer, one of her opponents, Cathy Messerly held a sign with an apple on it. Messerly is an accountant who says she got some snide comments before getting into the race, “A lot of people said, ‘Why would you get involved in this mess?’” Messerly talked her bid for school board over with her two young daughters who are enrolled in public schools in Collierville, “I asked them how they would feel if I ran for an office, and they were immediately like, ‘Well, Mom, you need to do this. This is our future. Somebody needs to stand up for us.’”
Another Position 2 candidate, Wanda Chism, taught in Collierville schools for more than 30 years. Chism is suspicious of plans for a merged Memphis and Shelby County school district and, like all her fellow candidates, thinks a board elected in Collierville could do a better job of educating children in Collierville, “I am very much afraid that we would all be lost within a system of 150,000.”
The size of the merged school district, (approximately 150,000 students if there aren’t any municipal school districts), is something that came up again and again when talking to candidates for Collierville school board. They were all troubled by it. Academic research on this point is mixed. Some of the research concludes that smaller school districts are better, some concludes that size makes no difference, but Position 2 candidate Asit Patel would definitely prefer to send his kids to a smaller district. Patel works for International Paper, and he got his start in politics in the lead-up to the August 2 election, when he encouraged his neighbors to vote to open a Collierville district. Patel isn’t happy about America’s slipping world ranking in math and science. If he’s elected to the Collierville school board he’d like to toughen-up the curriculum, “I get inspired by the whole space and the moon-mission,” Patel said. “Fifty years ago we succeeded as a nation because we put so much energy in ensuring that our school system generated engineers and scientists so that we built things. We need to get back to that.”
Position 2 candidate Derrick McNeal says the outcome of this local school board election is more important to him than the national presidential election. McNeal is a ConAgra Foods Environmental Health & Safety Plant Manager who has been told he bears a physical resemblance to Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan. “So, for me it’s been kind of funny saying, ‘I’m running for school board, not the vice-presidency,’” McNeal said.
McNeal grew up in Memphis and graduated from Overton High School, a Memphis City School, in 1997. He and his wife moved to Collierville from Memphis three years ago, around the time their son was born. McNeal said a driving factor in his young family’s move was the public schools in Collierville.
“You’ve got parents in the classroom, parents that volunteer, parents that are vested,” McNeal said.
If the judge delays or prevents the formation of a Collierville school district, McNeal said he would send his son to a merged Memphis and Shelby County school system, “Even if the school districts merge, I don’t think that there is going to be a big riff, if you would, within the current schools that are out in the county, and especially the elementary, the smaller elementary schools.”
Even so, McNeal said he’d keep fighting for a Collierville school district. All his fellow candidates agreed.
After a debate in which all the candidates for Collierville school board expressed a great deal of agreement on issues large and small Kasperbauer said, “I think whatever happens in this election, Collierville wins.”