Jeff Warren seeks council seat after time of historic change on school board

By Published: March 18, 2019 10:12 AM CT

In the almost 11 years since Dr. Jeff Warren was last on a city ballot, much has changed.

The Memphis City Schools board to which Warren was elected and re-elected no longer exists. Also, City Hall provides no ongoing operating funding to Shelby County Schools, the successor to MCS.

Warren, a family physician, is running for the Super District 9 Position 3 seat on the Memphis City Council in the October Memphis elections. The seat now held by Reid Hedgepeth is one of several open seats on the 13-member body. Hedgepeth is term-limited from seeking another four-year term.

NATALIE VAN GUNDYPolitics Podcast: Memphis City Council candidate Jeff Warren

Warren says if elected to the council, he would like to see the city provide some funding to Shelby County Schools, but not if it means that triggers a “maintenance of effort” requirement under state law that would require the city to continue that funding indefinitely.

“There are certain things that I would like to have us think about that I think we can do without a maintenance of effort,” Warren said on the Daily Memphian Politics Podcast.

“One of those is capital needs,” he said. “We may be able to do some things to help the school system with their capital needs by taking buildings and properties off their hands and converting it to other better purposes for the neighborhoods other than having them be abandoned.”

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After the Memphis City Council cut the MCS budget by $93 million in 2008, Warren, as a school board member, advocated for single-source funding of both school systems. His proposal included taxing authority for the county’s two public school districts with the two school boards meeting jointly on such matters. Any decision on taxes by the school boards would have required approval by the Tennessee Legislature.

The school system also took the city to court over the funding cut and won, with a trial court and a state appeals court ruling that the city could not cut the funding. The Tennessee Supreme Court denied an appeal beyond the appeals court on the point.

But the funding cut was the first in a series of events – sometimes unrelated – that led to the merger of the county’s two public school systems for a single school year followed by a demerger into seven public school systems. With the merger, city government no longer funded public education on an ongoing basis.

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“Part of the problem that we had with the city last time is this defunding of the city school system came about at a time that the economy was beginning to tank,” Warren said. “The budget of the city was in trouble. … People need to realize that funding the schools and becoming a funding body is an ongoing process.”

Warren says he doesn’t have “any specific issues” with the current city council that today includes only one member who voted for the funding cut in 2008 – Hedgepeth.

“They’ve all done a pretty good job. I think the filling of empty council seats brought out some bad blood,” he said of the three vacant seats council members struggled to fill late last year and into January. “And I’d like to come in and just help heal those wounds.”

Warren voted against calling the referendum to surrender the MCS charter after his bid for a three-year “stand-down” agreement, for talks between the two school systems, was rejected by the MCS board.

“The bottom line is this is being pushed for political purposes,” Warren said at the time. “There are people doing it politically. There are people doing it out of fear.”

“I think a lot of that was people just not understanding the complexity of special school district law,” Warren said on the podcast. “It was very complicated. If you missed one particular part of that, you could make a conclusion that was erroneous. And when you do that, it takes you down a path where you had two sides thinking they were both right.”

In the transition ahead of the only school year of the merger in 2013, followed by the demerger into seven public school districts the next school year, Warren was part of the 23-member countywide school board that included all of the elected board members of the legacy Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools boards. It also included seven board members elected for the merged school system.

Warren was among the 16 legacy school board members who rotated off the board the same month the merger school year began.

“I’ve learned to listen before I talk. I tended not to try to be inflammatory,” Warren said of his time on the school board. “I tried to listen and bring sides together and find compromise and get to solutions to complex problems. I seldom had simple soundbites that addressed issues.”

He said he sees the council’s role in city government as being policy and oversight.

“The city council is a governing board. We don’t run the city. We make the rules and the laws,” he said. “And we do the follow-through and do the oversight. But essentially at the end of the day, it’s the administration that has to get the work done. And we need to be able to do something to make sure it’s being done the way the citizens want it done.”


Daily Memphian Politics Podcast Jeff Warren Memphis City Council 2019 Memphis Elections
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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