Monday, July 30, 2007

City School Board On The Verge Of Flunking Key State Test

Little more than a week ago, we wrote about the hardening attitude of state government about the 17 high-priority schools in Memphis City Schools and prospects for some dramatic action by the governor.

In response to the post, we were asked by several people what the governor could do.

The answer: Pretty much anything he wants to do.

Warning Shots

That’s because the law gives Governor Phil Bredesen a sweeping array of alternatives, ranging from reduced funding to abolishing the Memphis City Schools Board.

At this point, it’s worth remembering, especially by those who describe the possibility of state takeover of these schools as “draconian,” that Memphis City Schools has had four years to correct problems at these schools.

It’s not as if a warning shot wasn’t ever fired by state government. In fact, shots were fired year after year, and even in the wake of them, state officials feel that Memphis City Schools’ officials are not serious enough about the actions needed to turn around the performance of these schools.

You Say You Want A Revolution

Reports from our district to the state resisting any changes in school leadership or jargon-laden plans that lack any strategic thread are doing nothing in Nashville so much as indicating that the Memphis district wants to appear like it’s taking action without really doing anything too revolutionary.

And yet, the revolution is at hand.

Options For The Gov

As a result of these schools moving from “improvement” to “corrective action,” the governor must pick at least one of the following options:

* He defers programmatic funds or reduce administrative funds

* He institutes and fully implements a new curriculum that is based on state academic standards, including providing appropriate scientifically-based professional development

* He replaces the Memphis City Schools employees who are relevant to the failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)

* He removes particular schools from the control of the Memphis City Schools and sets up alternative arrangements for the public governance and supervision of these schools

* He appoints a receiver or trustee in place of the Memphis City School Board

* He abolishes or restructures the entire city district

Take Care

So, in the face of these kinds of pending decisions, how does the Memphis City Schools Board send its most powerful message to Governor Phil Bredesen about their commitment to changing things?

Apparently, by appointing a former school district administrator who’s promised to make no changes and fire no one.

Can you say caretaker?

Sending Messages

The school board seem oblivious to the need to send strong signals from Memphis to state officials about how serious they take the matter of these 17 schools.

One of the worst aspects of serving in stressful public positions in highly-charged environments, and this is especially true of school board members, is that in the midst of the battle, you are often able to convince yourself that what you are doing makes sense and you lose all ability to see how your decisions look to the outside world.

Because school board members now find themselves in the middle of the trees and unable to see the forest, they can’t grasp the common sense of getting help from an independent search firm, of finding an interim superintendent who can be an agent of change who builds on the progress started by Supt. Carol Johnson and of getting businesslike about the public’s business.

And because of it, it appears that the most effective leadership for public education in Memphis this year may well come from 210 miles to the east.


gatesofmemphis said...

I said "draconian" because I had read your post as saying he wanted to takeover the school district, not just those 17 schools. So let me change my adjective to "not-so-draconian". But I stand by the original if it's about a board takeover, not just about those 17 schools.

The Governor can no doubt do anything he wants, but people will complain if it's not better. I hope he does better, and for those schools, maybe it's time to let him try, even if we had the power to not let him.

It's interesting that Thomas Menino took over the Boston Public Schools and appointed his hand-picked, highly qualified school board, which turned around and made the same decision as our school district, which is now in danger of a takeover for making bad decisions. It feels like turtles all the way down.

Smart City Consulting said...


Sorry. We forgot you said draconian. We were actually replying to a voice mail calling the potential of a state takeover of the 17 schools as draconian. We predict that the governor has little appetite for taking over the entire district and removing the board.

In other cities that have seen state takeovers and mayoral takeovers, the presence of an appointed board has been a plus in attracting high-level talent to the superintendent's job and other leadership positions. We're not saying that's what we're advocating here; we're just pointing it out.

As we noted, we think that the current board doesn't have a sense of how closely the state is watching what they are doing with the interim superintendent's job and the process for selecting the permanent superintendent.

Anonymous said...

Last night, after more than three hours of interviewing and discussing two candidates for interim superintendent, the search committee was deadlocked on making a decision. The candidates represented two polar ends of the continuum of what to do. One was a 34 year veteran of the MCS system who pledged to do nothing while the other is a tried and true education leader with experience with just the sort of problems MCS is facing. If this wasn't a no brainier, I don't know what might be. The desire for business as usual on the part of some school baord members, including the president of the board, should be the clear indicator to the community that someone needs to step in and show some leadership.

AC Wharton, head of the governmental unit with taxing and funding authority and responsibility for MCS, is clearly the elected official who can and should properly work with the governor to ceconstitute the governance structure of MCS.

Eliminate the current school board and appoint a new interim school committee to take the steps to truly reform the problems in the dstrict. A school committee, similar to those in places like Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and others, with the broad powers to address and make sweeping change is clearly called for at this time.

RuralFreeDelivery said...

Anon 8:19 - I saw the story in today's Commercial Appeal about the deadlock and had a similarly forehead-slapping moment. The CA's piece about it (at least online, I haven't seen the print edition) was almost humorously biased in favor of Mr. Schiller, and included a photo and resume of his accomplishments.

To quote the piece about Dan Ward, Mr. Schiller's rival for the job: "Members [of the search committee] thought Ward was strong in relationships, with his lifelong tie to this community." Arg... The last thing our school system needs is a leader who is placed on the basis of his "relationships."

Also: was anybody else dumbfounded that the search committee seems to be comprised of four members (Jones, Halbert, Robinson, Mallott), thereby almost guaranteeing a deadlock vote? Isn't that something you learn on the first day of Common Sense 101, to make sure that any sort of decision-making body is comprised of odd numbers of people so you can always get a 50% + 1 majority?

I'm surprised and dismayed that Martavius went in favor of Ward--and equally surprised that Wanda had the good sense to vote for Schiller.

Anonymous said...

Ward stated in his interview that he would make no changes, that all the current leadership are his people, and no one is in jeopardy of loosing their job. As to Mr. Martavius "New Paths" Jones, it appears that he is willing to go down the same old tried and true path. The search committee also included the president of the PTA (that important fifth vote) who came to one meeting, expressed her desire for an internal candidate, and left the country on vacation. Wanda stated from the outset that she saw only one qualified candidate in the applicant pool and it was Schiller. The CA coverage of Ward occured last week when he interviewed. Schiller just interviewed last night.

Anonymous said...

Yes, please let the state come in and take over. They've shown great understanding of the needs of struggling schools by mandating the removal of administrators and staff two weeks before the start of the school year. I'm sure the millions of dollars they are investing in adding staff and resources that must be in place on August 6th will be spent wisely. At this time of year, there are generally hundreds of excellent teachers in shortage areas just waiting for positions at schools that have always been struggled to find great staff. Two weeks is absolutely more than enough time for new adminstrators to establish relationships with communities and current staff, identify underperforming staff to remove, interview and hire excellent new teachers and set up a solid learning community. And other schools can definitely (and willingly!) absorb all of those underperforming teachers who can't be fired. I'm so very glad the state is saving MCS with that excellent plan!

Anonymous said...

The state is two years behind with this move. There are probably another 5 to 13 schools that are now eligible for the state to take these actions having been on the high priority list for 4 years.

However, I guess you are correct Mr. Anonymous 5:48. We should go along with the school board which seems to want to put in place a superintendent who want to continue as we have been doing.

The research shows that these schools can hire better teachers and the current teachers can do a better job. The absence of innovation and leadership has been problematic. If you look at the systems whoich have taken the steps to replace a lay, political board you will see that all the problem is not the teachers....

Anonymous said...

I'm interested to know what research shows that schools can hire great teachers in August. I'm pretty sure it shows that state mandates that are declared at the last minute are just one of the many reasons schools lose out on great teachers. What is the point of mandating the removal of teachers when they're just going to be replaced with warm bodies?

I'm not saying I disagree that the state needs to take some action and that there are serious issues with the board. But making these changes less than 3 weeks before the start of school is a poor investment on the part of the state and the district and is just wasting another year. No one, at any level, appears to be thinking critically.