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Early Voting Underway In Shelby County

Today is the first day of early voting. In addition to the Presidential election, there are two important local issues on ballots in Shelby County: municipal school board elections in the suburbs; and a countywide half-cent sales tax increase in Memphis and the unincorporated areas of the county.

Turning first to the municipal school board elections—in total, 64 candidates are running across all six suburbs. In Millington, seven candidates are running unopposed. Each of the remaining five suburbs will elect five-member boards. In Lakeland, 12 candidates are running for five at-large positions. In Germantown, Bartlett, Collierville, and Arlington, candidates are running to represent a small geographic slice of the city. Collierville’s School Board Position Two is the most contested race, with five candidates running.

These school board races are happening because in August, all six suburbs passed referendums saying they wanted to form separate school districts rather than send their children to a merged Memphis and Shelby County school district. A federal court judge still needs to weigh in on the legality of those referendums and the school board elections underway. If U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays decides that the state law which opened the door for municipal schools here in Shelby County violates the Tennessee Constitution, then he’ll throw out the results of the school board races underway and the August referendums. If he finds the law sound, then the election results will stand and the suburbs’ preparation for separate schools will continue.

Outside of the suburbs, in the city of Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County, there will be a half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot. The suburbs do not get to vote on this because they already voted on a half-cent sales tax increase in August.

The suburbs put their sales tax increase on the ballot to help fund municipal schools, but if it passes countywide, that will impact school funding in the suburbs. Arlington and Lakeland will collect more money if the measure passes countywide. Germantown, Bartlett, Collierville, and Millington will collect less.

Should it pass, the half-cent sales tax will generate an additional $60 million for the Shelby County Commission to disburse. Half of that ($30 million) will go to the merged school district and go a long way to making up the new district’s budget gap. The Transition Planning Commission, which drew up a blueprint for the merger, left the district with a budget gap of $57 million. If the sales tax referendum does not pass in the city and unincorporated county, then any additional funds needed for the merged district will likely have to come from a property tax increase.

This election will be closely watched for its smoothness of process. Elections Administrator Richard Holden is on a six-month probation after thousands of voters got the wrong ballot during the August 2 election. A state investigation into that election, completed earlier this month, found that the election commission made mistakes updating its voter rolls after a once-in-a-decade redistricting.

Investigators found that Holden and his team did not meet early deadlines, did not have adequate back-up plans, and at one critical point stopped working for four weeks. 

I love living in Memphis, but I'm not from the city. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I spent many hours at a highly tender age listening to NPR as my parents crisscrossed that city in their car, running errands. I don't amuse myself by musing about the purity of destiny, but I have seriously wondered how different my life would be if my parents preferred classic rock instead of Car Talk.