Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Road To Better School Operations Could Start With A Joint Board Of Control

There are better ways to run urban school districts than by elected school boards.

That’s an opinion that’s gaining traction in many large U.S. cities and given new energy by the success of buoyant, youthful Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty in taking over his city’s troubled school district.

This year’s takeover of school operations by Mayor Fenty bookends a 15-year mayoral takeover movement that began in 1992 in Boston, and between them are five other successful changes in school governance -- Chicago (1995), Cleveland (1998), Detroit (1999), Philadelphia (2001), and New York (2002).

When In Doubt, Reorganize

The interest in this different way of operating school districts surfaced here a month ago when Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton said that it’s hard to imagine a better time to change the operational structure of Memphis City Schools. Considering the litany of controversies at the city district in recent months, it’s pretty hard to argue with him.

After all, if Albuquerque, Los Angeles and Richmond can move this topic to the top of their list of priorities, it sure seems that Memphis can, too. Here, there’s the ongoing federal investigation, the nutrition services scandal, questions about a no-bid transportation contract, concerns about the contract for temp workers and the rumblings inside the district headquarters show no signs of stopping.

If there’s any indictment of the chaotic culture of the Memphis City Schools and the district’s persistent inability to improve things, it is the latest organizational restructure – it was the fourth in five years.

Better Controls

While Interim Superintendent Dan Ward’s recent reorganization (complete with clumsy press release references to his military experience 25 years ago) effectively dismantled the centralized organization that evolved during the Carol Johnson era, the truth is that no org chart has proven to be the antidote to the problems that seem inherent in the lumbering, $1 billion a year bureaucracy.

In fact, the failure to resolve these problems over the years is probably the strongest evidence in support of mayoral control, because research has shown that a chief benefit from this new governance is the improvement in operational functions. As one study put it, financial and administrative operations of the districts are more effective and healthy under mayoral control, and in districts run by mayors, more people who are non-teachers are hired for key management jobs.

While the greatest benefits of a governance change are on the administrative side of the district, it’s hard to argue that a change in organization couldn’t help the academic side. After all, Memphis City Schools has 100 schools that don’t meet state benchmarks for progress. With state standards toughening in the next 12 months, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that the public relations house of cards about improved student performance won’t come crashing down.

Hitting The Books

Here’s the thing about mayoral control. While research indicates that the single vision creates progress, the real magic is in removal of an elected school board. It’s not that board members are bad people or not serious about their duties. It’s just that the presence of an elected board politicizes a district already difficult enough to operate. It’s hard to remain loyal to balkanized districts of constituents and manage to develop an overall vision for the district.

About now, Mayor Wharton is likely poring over lawbooks from the county attorney’s office to find ways to bring a new governance structure to Memphis City Schools. So far, school board commissioners have concentrated their attention on the governor’s powers under No Child Left Behind and the opportunities for takeover of the city district by state government.

While state law endows the governor with considerable powers, he’s shown little appetite for bold action to this point despite the crisis in both Memphis and Nashville districts; however, his support for mayoral takeover could be a key to getting it done.

Unearthed Opportunity

Word filtering out of the county building is that Mayor Wharton has been investigating legal and political options for months and doing much of the research himself. It’s hard to imagine that one major point of investigation isn’t the Joint Board of Control, a mechanism that he unearthed in 2004 in the midst of his campaign to clamp down on the devastating impact that the capital costs of schools were having on the county budget.

In a July 14, 2004, letter to Patrice Robinson, then president of the Memphis Board of Commissioners, Mayor Wharton wrote: “After much research, I believe establishment of a Joint Board of Control is a viable tool that should be considered as we move forward with this process.” He could say the same now about mayoral control.

In media coverage in 2004, he compared his approach as similar to a “joint venture in the private sector” and said school officials had pledged to keep an open mind on the use of the joint board. While capital funding pressures at the time drove the discussion, the description of the Joint Board in Mayor Wharton’s letter suggests that it has the potential to be the vehicle for mayoral takeover.

Pyramid Scheme

The 1957 state law about Joint Board of Control says that city and county school districts can enter into contracts which provide for joint operation of a school or certain services with an eye to increased efficiency. The law is bolstered by the Memphis city charter which allows contracts between the two school districts.

Emulating the kind of legal structures set up for some of local government’s most complicated projects – The Pyramid and FedEx Forum – a possible course of action could be for Memphis City Schools to sign a far-reaching contract with Shelby County Schools for a Joint Board of Control, and the Joint Board of Control in turns contracts with Memphis city government to run the city school district. (It’s not unlike the city and county governments contracting with the Public Building Authority to construct an arena, and the Authority then subcontracts with a third party to build it.)

According to a 2003 opinion issued by Tennessee Attorney General Paul G. Summers, there’s no limit to the powers and control that the joint board could possess, and although the change in the governance of Memphis City Schools would require the approval of its board of commissioners, it’s still possible that it could be quicker than other options. The beauty of the Joint Board of Control is that it doesn’t require any additional legislative action, because the law already exists.

The Catch

Here’s Catch-22: Success will eventually depend on the better angels in board members’ nature, because its members’ support are needed to give Memphis the chance to see if this dramatic change in governance can take place and produce the positive results seen in other cities.

In an authoritative study about the impact of mayoral takeover, the following conclusions were reached:

* In 80 percent of the districts studied, the elementary schools improved their test scores.

* Every district studied showed improved performance by high school students.

* The most significant improvements in performance are seen in the lowest-performing schools.

* More accountability in the system and responsibility held by a single city leader increases public confidence in strategies to turn around the schools.

Chance For Success

In addition, Dr. Ken Wong of Brown University, in a must-read, recent report, “The Education Mayor,” conducted a comparison of 14 mayor-led districts to 90 similar districts run by independent schools boards and concluded that mayoral control results in one-third of a year in extra learning by the average student.

In the end, pursuit of a Joint Board of Control rests on two premises – one, that Memphis City School board will do what is best for the children in its classrooms, and two, that a unified front of Governor Phil Bredesen, Mayor Wharton and Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton can wield the political influence to make a Joint Board of Control happen.

It’s clear that a unified political front stands the best chance of coming up with a combination of carrots and sticks that convinces school board commissioners to give a new governance structure an opportunity. With public confidence in the school district bottoming out and with more of the same promising the same disturbing results, there’s little doubt that the public is willing to try something different.


Anonymous said...

It's pretty hard to imagine that Memphis' government is the answer to problems at our schools. Someone needs to go back to the drawing board.

Anonymous said...

Amen to Anonymous at 1:24

Anonymous said...

If Wharton's answer is Herenton, then he's asking the wrong question.

Anonymous said...

Two problems with Joint Control Board: 1) allows current elected school board(s) to appoint themselves or other likeminded individuals to run the store; hence no necessary change in the failed ability to manage, this could even include them appointing themselves to the JCB. 2)Further clouds problem of governance by raising the spectre of consolidation and creates a different debate which is not focused on the real problems at MCS.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand this issue, but I do know that we can't keep doing what we're doing at city schools. Something has got to change.

LeftWingCracker said...

Yes, but what? Part of the problem is that it takes city school operations out of the hands of parents by preventing them from voting for their School Board members. That is definitely undemocratic (little d), and smacks of elitism.

That said, how do you address the problem of poverty and the fact that so many of our public school-children are raising themselves? Will a JCB address that, and how?

Just my .02.

Smart City Consulting said...


The notion in other cities is that voters elect the mayor, so you are still electing the person charged with oversight of the system. As you know, the idea of an elected board is a relatively modern idea, and proponents for a different governance structure would say that when the mayor is in charge of education, it allows for the integration of city services that address poverty, health, etc., instead of education being operated in a silo.

Tom Guleff said...

This is a tough one.

The road to good schools seems to be filled with great principals and involved (demanding) parents.

Which leads to LWC's comment. What is the next best model if these most important ingredients are missing from a school/system (for whatever reason)?

Anonymous said...

The next best model is Communities in Schools, something that MCS rejected when offered it last year. It is working in 37 states and could work here as well. Cost, about $182 per kid.

To LWC, as Mills pointed out in On Liberty; in order to have a democracy you need an enlightened public, in order to have an enlightened public you have to have an educated public, in order to have an educated public you have to have an effective free and enlightened school system, in order to have an effective and enlightened school system you need to have a democracy.

Where do you want to start LWC?


Anonymous said...

If you look at many of these other cities, you can see that there is a possibility that it is not just the taking over of the schools by the mayor, but who the mayor is that comes into play. If you do not have a mayor with the vision and management skills to oversee improvement in schools, then a mayoral takeover doesn't really buy you much, except another campaign platform on which to base your mayoral vote.

Could a mayor-led school system find a better superintendent? Well, as we look back at the tenure of Dr. Johnson, it becomes clear that while making great strides in some areas, she definitely had some difficulty on the administrative and management side of things. (It's not surprising that Mr. Ward would reverse much of her reorganization efforts, as many were not well thought out and stretched the capabilities of some in her upper management.) Mayor Wharton helped recruit Dr. Johnson, so we can guess that there would not be much difference in superintendent choices from a mayor -led school system.

As part of your proposal you would still have a governance board that would oversee a superintendent (chancellor, whatever). Would this board have more power than the current board to reach into the organization past the superintendent? If not, what would the real difference be? It would be appointed. We can look across the rest of the boards and commission of the city and county and easily see that these are not particularly any more in the public interest, and in many cases are much more political (small p).

The real magic is not in the removal of an elected school board, as you propose. Whether you have an appointed or elected board, the benefit comes from the mayor or a board being able to reach past the policy-level to investigate or intercede in the administration. This was the view from a former Cleveland mayor who testified as DC was looking into their takeover. We can see this in recent reactions to issues by the current school board. What recourse did they have, but to hold the superintendent accountable? As reports came from Goar and the superintendent that issues with the nutrition center were being handled, what authority did they have to reach past the superintendent to make changes?

There are measures that could be implemented without having the mayor take over the school system, and at this point it would seem the school board should be open to suggestions. It seems that the start of this discussion should be to find out what is best for the school system, not a presumption of knowing what is best, and hoping that everyone can see the obvious answer you've provided. You've made a conversation difficult before it has started by creating an immediate need for a "united political front" to convince the school board commissioners to do what's right.

Maybe, for once, people in Memphis should try communicating first, before we start fighting.

Anonymous said...

One problem with the current school board is that they think things are fine. Now where they get that idea is beyond most of us.

Anonymous said...

Nothing short of dynamite will fix the problems of the city schools where the school board is delusional and dysfunctional and will attack anything that disrupts it.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 6:17:

Here's the thing: the ultimate test is not whether the new governance structure results in the hiring of a better superintendent. The test is whether it results in a better policy making arm for the district. Research indicates that it does, bringing in a nonpoliticized board that sets the vision and sets out to the community specific priorities that they are held accountable for attaining.

We feel your pain and agree about the board being victimized by bad information about nutrition services, but we also believe that the board needs to get a better attorney if they are being told that they cannot exert more influence into the operational integrity of MCS.

Often, board members are the ultimate victims of the system, because they are routinely denied basic information to do their jobs and if we were them, we'd make wholesale budget cuts until the lines of communications are improved.

In this issue, if evidence and research indicates that an appointed board and mayoral control produces greater academic improvement, especially in low-performing districtgs, the question is whether the board can step up and be heroes for Memphis by stepping aside (although some will probably be picked for the appointed board) and allowing a different structure.

Aaron said...

Tom said:
"The road to good schools seems to be filled with great principals and involved (demanding) parents. "

It doesn't get much more simple then that.


Go see how Snowden is run by Ms. Battle who has now been awarded principle of the year two years in a row. Snowden is a school filled with a strong middle class of African Americans and increasing number of asians and whites.

They have a low tolerance for both slacker teachers and students.

As for the rest of the low income children who don't have these type of support structures one needs to look at what is being done at MASE academy where the school has taken on the role of a parent and is providing a highly structured environment that MCS are not willing to adopt.

So as George pointed out we need an enlightened officials to adopt this approach, but where do you find such enlightened
individuals that are typically flltered out by the unenlightened public. Or maybe some shakers just don't even bother knowing that they can get a lot more done through the private sector on a smaller scale.

In the quest for control, recognition or power so many officials lose their vision and role as public servants so when a great vision/idea comes along they are two busy chasing their own tails. Oh well.

I think Mayor Wharton is definitely on the right track and has made suggestions for curriculum changes that are much more inline with the approach that MASE is taking......there's still hope!!!

Anonymous said...

i'm glad someone is seriously creating the dialogue for change. the mayor should have oversight and if it takes a joint control board to get it done then, i say, make it happen. the answer to the demise of the public education system, in this country, not just the county, is a difficult one. the biggest problem with the city school system is the LEADERS, its not the kids, i'm sorry but it's not the parents either but the leaders. if someone got into the business of actually educating children instead of containing them for eight hours we would see improvement.
if the county is not ready to stretch to a joint board than at least the responsibility for charter schools should sit with the mayor. charter schools are a piece of the puzzle for the public education system, imagine they are in the business of educating children. not running a multi-million dollar nutrition center, transportation system, but education. what a concept a school that is there to educate.

Aaron said...

If it's the LEADERs fault
then you would expect to see all
MCS failing. Clearly not the case.

The successful schools are located in neighborhoods where there is strong family support and parental involvment. I know -my 6 year old goes to one of these schools. The parents expect a lot and so does the administration. It's that simple.

What's not so simple is how do we institutionalize a successful process that rebuilds the family unit which I would argue is the main driver behind the accountability of the admistrators and the success of each child? Government has been trying to answer this question for years.

What you are asking our leaders to do is provide accountability to schools lacking this mechanism when in fact the most critical readout or feedback mechanism is not available- i.e. the parents.

Really we're dealing with different issues. Ideally you have a school with a great community-based accountability system. This is largely lacking here because most of those concerned Parents have long left the area to and put their children in private schools.
This is the real problem! And so you are left with a power vacuum that is inappropriately filled by a select few when in fact it was intended to be distributed among the community.

So now we have these deserted nieghborhoods filled with low-income people who by their own nature or predicament have very little involvment in the educational process. Mix that with a powerful school board that knows it doesn't have to answer to the parents and you have very little chances of making sweeping changes.
And perhaps coupled with a lot of finger pointing from parents at the teachers, this leaves very little incentive for innovative minded teachers to want to venture into these type of schools. Evidence.... This notion comes from knowing a teacher who was loved by most of her students but was let go due to a few students
and their parents complaining that she was too hard-gave them a bad grade! That's taboo these days.

So yes the Leaders are a problem but there are far many other variables to consider why we are in this predicament.....

Anonymous said...

It's simple logic. We can't expect different results by doing the same thing. HOWEVER, I think the different results that would mean that Mayor Herenton controls schools can only be in the wrong direction.

Anonymous said...

Question for Aaron, Please define "Successful School."

Anonymous said...

While I agree completely with Mayor Wharton on this, I don't see how he can transfer his public confidence to Herenton.

It sounds like Herenton will need to be a leader (THE leader?) for this, and there's no way that he can deliver any big changes. His credibility is so low that his support only dooms it to disaster.

A better option would be for the governor of our state to exert the leadership that's needed to get our school district on the right track. That's someone with a large enough reserve of public credibility that he could deliver the changes that are needed.

I repeat - Herenton can't deliver anything but lost opportunity.

Aaron said...

What is a successful school?

If you want an in depth report on this please see this

Below is a list that I consider important. I derived this list from the above article:

1. A principal with a strong vision

Aaron said...

Let's try this again..

What is a successful school?

If you want an in depth report on this please see this

Below is a list that I consider important. I derived this list from the above article:

1. A principal with a strong vision
2. Small learning environments
3. Structure learning around career/student interest
4. Professional development focused on instruction
5. Tie out-of-school learning to classroom learning
6.Career and higher education counseling
7. Flexible, relevant segments of instruction
8. Assess on what students can do
9. Partnerships with higher education
10.Support alliances with parents and community
11. Safe and orderly environment

How this list actually translates in to real world curriculum and programs evolves into a case-by-case basis and is highly dependent on the principal's capacity and vision.

I have personally seen most of these criteria met at Snowden starting from the principal, the safety of the school, amazing field trips to the ballet, symphony and the zoo, career days for the older children, electives etc.. I could go on.

Lastly, there are several models discussed in this article but one of the overriding themes was the need for a high level of parent and community support and involvement. A school must have this intact and the teachers must receive the necessary support from the administration and parents. I have a number of friends that have worked as teachers in low-income schools and one of their biggest frustrations has been the lack of support from both of those entities. They feel that their hands are tied and can't say too much about the child's behavior- i.e. the parents must be teachable too.

This is the reason charter schools tend to succeed from the get-go. There are some strict guidelines that BOTH parents and the teachers must adhere to. Often a contractual agreement is signed with parents about punctuality, behavior expectations with little room for deviations. By having a large pool of applicants, you select for highly involved parents that may be low-income but are passionate about the education of their children. This sets up the right environment for the teachers to succeed. You've essentially filtered out the parents with tendency to blame the school system for the poor parenting skills- I would argue that this group of parents is what continues to enable dysfunctionality that we see in the MCS. It's merely a transfer from the home to the classroom.

Charter schools are a mixed bag but for now they are a way out for low-income high-quality families who's child education suffer at the hands of absentee parents.

George said...

Oh Aaron, Oh Aaron, Oh Aaron,

I feared you might take me somewhere like this when I asked what is a quality school; but Mr. Daggett is even worse than I feared.

Here is an individual who appears to make up data on the fly. He is the winner of the "NO, YOU'RE NOT A HAM, HAM CAN BE CURED" ROTTEN APPLE AWARD presented by Gerald Bracey annually in the Phi Delta Kappan, a national education journal of note.

It is clear from your comments that you are a concerned and thoughtful individual. There are much more reputable sources of information that Willard Daggett.

This is one of the problems of the internet, any crackpot can set up an "international organization for school improvement," and spew nonsense with no review of the legitimacy of the information. We would all do well to avoid any internet based data and go to the library or at least go to reputable sources. One way to find them is through J-Stor, available through the UM, an on-line database of academic research.

There is clearly the need to approach these questions with legitimate data and information. Peer reviewed research is the best approach. I am afraid Mr. Daggett does not fit the bill.


Anonymous said...

Can we get back to the subject at hand? I still vote for change and I don't care what form it takes as long as the school board isn't in charge.

Aaron said...


I appreciate the lecture and will be the first admit that I am by know means an expert. When it comes to educational theory sometimes the truth and solutions are plain in sight and can get easily lost amongst credentials, theories and statistics.

I merely looked at some of the criteria that they had compiled and recognized that a lot of those criteria were being met by a successful school in our area.

As a career research scientist, I completely agree with you about faulty "internet-based data" but does that negate findings that are consistent with personal observations? For medical research we can all agree this blind approach is unacceptable. Should any of our suggestions on this thread be presenting unless they have statistically significant data to back up it up? Perhaps, in which case please ignore my rubbish. It's an opinion- take it for what it's worth.

As to remaining true to the thread:
IMHO- Absentee parenting and poor community support will always trump ANY government initiative or approach. Please see LWC comments.
The state of the MCS is merely symptom of this rather then the cause. IMHO.

George said...


Please excuse me if I sound like I am lecturing, it is the "old professor" in me coming out. There are three or four blowhards in the world regarding education, Daggett is one; another is Ruby Paine, who has been spouting off in Memphis on a number of occasions. I just cannot take much of what they say seriously.

As a wise sociologist, Peter Berger, once said "The world is not as it appears." His point was that we often look at the world with all of our taken for granted notions obscuring reality.

This is particularly true regarding education. Many feel that they already know a much about K-12, hell we all spent 13 years there, we know all about it. This would be like me saying I have been infected by many viruses over my life time so I know everything about viral infection or I was born so I understand obstetrics. This is at the root of the problems with a lay school board. They don't know much about education, they don't know how to run a billion dollar business, and they don't even know how to ask the right questions or form policy to resolve problems in our schools.

When we think of what a successful school is we must avoid this, not uncommon, human failing. Take Mr. Daggett's list as an example. We must not confuse coorelation with causation. While many of the things on the list are correlated with good schools the more important question is how do we get there?

Yes, leadership at the principal level is one of the important factors; look at how many of the schools in MCS that are having academic problems with relatively new principals; I assure you the number is high.

Community involvement, including parents, is important. This is why I mentioned Communities In Schools earlier. This is an approach that clearly has a positive impact on the achievement and success of our children.

Another problem generated when this approach is applied to education is that people believe there are silver bullets. There are none. Mayoral control is not a silver bullet; however there is now a growing body of research which shows the benefits it can bring.

To quote the blog on this site regarding HBCUs and Lemoyne Owen:

"To transform underperforming institutions usually requires new leaders who combine tough-mindedness with collaboration, and who recognize that fixing the balance sheet is only a first step. Successful turnarounds demand that virtually all key groups on a campus, particularly the faculty, contribute to making tough choices, help reposition the institution in the academic marketplace, and find the inspiration to revitalize the teaching and learning experience."

It is this determined and systematic approach that the right leadership will develop to begin addressing the myriad problems at MCS.

Once again my apologies for what will surely seem like a lecture to some.

Anonymous said...

Oh Lord! Have mercy on my soul because I believe you and Aaron and both of your internet quotes

Aaron said...


I sincerely thank you for the lecture and would love to talk more with you over a coffee sometime- we could have a great chat. If you get a chance shoot me an email (see


Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


i'm the anonymous that posted about the LEADERS being responsible for the mess we call the city school system. you actually strengthen my assertion in your post, if we can only point towards a few bright spots in city schools that hints that leadership is the problem. a broken clock is right twice a day. to define leadership (school board, school administration and principals) i also would include ancillary departments that contribute to curriculm, finance or performance.

to say that leadership is the problem is not to discount the role of parental involvement. parental involvement is needed in all school systems around the country, county and city but should not be used as a convenient excuse for failure. if an administration knows that parental involvement is low should they in turn throw up their hands and go through the motions because "without parental involvement" these children cannot be properly educated? the job of the chief administrators, principals, and others is to find a way to succeed.

we need new leadership that will reexamine all of the assumptions made and create vehicles for change. the change has to come from the top down, not the bottom up. i get so frustrated with the assumption that if someone is poor, and there parents are under educated that they (the children) will only go so far. poor kids learn the same as rich kids, don't put limitations on these children educate them. if the way we currently educate does not work lets find a way that works. if we need to change the hours of the school to stay open later than let's do it. if we need a longer school year than let's do it. if we need a joint school board, let's do it. we need leaders that will make these tough decision in order to give the children the best chances/opportunities for success.

Aaron said...

You make a solid case. I would suggest that top down and bottom up are both required and I agree that it's the former that should insure that all the necessary conditions are in place to assure success for the children.

You are preaching to the choir regarding the potential of children coming from a materially poor background. Ultimately, rich or poor, I was speaking of the mentality of the parents. Absentee parenting spans all economic backgrounds.

Bet yes, we need the leadership in place to see where the gaps are and how to fill them given the nature of the community. Nice post.

Anonymous said...

Out of all the comments read on this blog, not one mentioned the real problem. While it definitely matters that you have an accountable school board with more diversity of representation and less politics driving its decisions, it is far greater importantant you have a superintendent who is not giving in to the politics of the city or participating in an established plan for the system not suited for the best interest of our children.

TN state law has given sole day to day authority to local superintendents. When you have one who smiles in the face of the community (because he or she is adored) but directly or indirectly cuts deals behind closed doors, then what?

School boards are lay people with many different talents who rely on the decisions of the superintendent. Nothing wrong can happen unless it begins at the top.

If you ever see your school board forcing a different decision other than one recommended by the superintendent which clearly appears to steer business to a company, then yes, your board is playing politics. Otherwise this city better pay more attention to the tactics and real work of the superintendent versus loving the personality of that individual.

Be careful to quickly adopt any mayor's plan for takeover because if the superintendent happens to be the friend of or recruited by the mayor, based on the real motives of the mayor, you still will have a big problem.

Resolution: We need individuals who truly care about the needs of the children in our public school system, less about their friends getting contracts. So much money has been spent on education and too many children are graduating without knowing how to read or better yet, choose to slide down strip poles because their choices are limited. You be the judge!

Anonymous said...

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