Tuesday, January 15, 2008

School Governance Issue Tests Civic Maturity

There are some things that transcend the day-to-day retail politics of Memphis and the personality-driven coverage of the news media.

Surely 115,000 Memphis City Schools students are at the top of that list.

There is no one who would disagree that there’s anything more important to Memphis than the futures of these students, and because of it, the current discussion about the governance of the city schools district is more than a much-needed conversation. Ultimately, it’s a test of our community’s maturity.

Give Light, Not Heat

Already, an editorial policy that never seems to give Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton a fair hearing has produced a dismissive opinion piece. Meanwhile, media coverage seems to focus more on whose idea this is than what the merits or demerits of the idea might be.

Hopefully, on this issue, the news media can set their civic purpose ahead of their ratings and recognize the value to Memphis of a calm, measured discussion about this issue. Perhaps, it’s a time to fall back on the oldest journalistic notion of all – an emphasis on illumination rather than fulmination.

The question that deserves to be answered is this: What is the optimal organizational structure for Memphis City Schools to improve student academic performance?


Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton are influential advocates for a change that would add Memphis to the 16 cities that have shifted to a mayor-led district (normally accompanied by an appointed school board). They are taking their case to Capitol Hill, where they will discuss their ideas with Governor Phil Bredesen, who has already said the meeting is about discussion, not about decisions.

Education has always placed high on the governor’s list of priorities, but it now is receiving renewed attention. Not only are both of our mayors discussing their concerns with him, but new Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is calling for dramatic action in the wake of his city’s district being placed on the high-priority list by the state Department of Education. Already, some City Hall insiders in Nashville have suggested that a change to a mayor-led district might be an option being investigated by the new administration.

With the mayors on one side of the issue, the news media immediately assumed that the Memphis City School Board of Commissioners would be against them. Actually, it’s too early to put the board in that category, and so far, about the only official action that they’ve taken is to authorize board president Tomeka Hart to draft a proposed official statement on the matter.

It’s About Facts First

Board members are anything but a monolithic group, and on balance, we suspect that they are likely to take a wait and see attitude. At a political level, there’s really no value in doing otherwise, because the board doesn’t want to be perceived as more committed to retaining power than exploring options for change. At a personal level, it appears that a majority of the board are tempermentally inclined to learn more about the issue before expressing opinions.

In this way, it’s clear that this is not your parents’ board of commissioners. The outbursts that were such staples of the previous board are largely gone. The tendency to get immediately defensive over even the mildest criticism is vanishing. The micro-management that ran so amok with the previous board is coming more into balance.

Here’s the thing: the truth is that many of us gave former superintendent Carol Johnson a pass. Because of her popularity and her personal persuasiveness, anything good that happened in Memphis City Schools was credited to her, and everything bad was blamed on the elected board.


Things are far from perfect at Memphis City Schools, and we have written often about the reasons for our deep concern. But it’s worth remembering that whatever problems exist, it is not because board members are bad people. And neither are the city and county mayors.

Hopefully, all sides will simply refuse to allow this to degenerate into politics as usual, sending a welcome sign of a new willingness to talk, to debate and to seek consensus. After all, the mayors are sincere in their motivation to do something to improve the future of city students. It is a sincerity shared by board members.

It is because of this mutual motivation that all sides should pledge now to refrain from volatile rhetoric and divisiveness actions. Of course, the greatest challenge to this is being alert to the persistent media traps that will be set in hopes of creating and reporting conflict and controversy and in terms of personality and power.

On The Merits

Here’s the thing about this decision. The personalities shouldn’t matter.

That’s because fundamental issues like management structure, governance and accountability shouldn’t be based on who’s in office and whether you like them or not. The mayors and commissioners won’t be in office forever, and because of it, this decision should be made on the merits of the case, rather than on the basis on who each of us support politically.

In previous posts, we have written favorably about mayor-led districts and the positive impact of appointed school boards. And yet, we may change our opinion in the face of convincing research. We suspect that most of the players in this matter are willing to listen to the other side, to examine the research and to listen objectively to the other side.

Run Silent, Run Deep

The problems of Memphis City Schools run deep and challenge our best efforts to find new ways to address them. We’ve written often about the indicators that alarm us and cry out for change. We’ll not repeat them here, because at this point, all of us need to set aside our own opinions in pursuit of a community conversation about our schools.

If there is a testament to any city’s maturity, it is found in its ability to set aside differences of opinion, to discuss various options and to decide the best course of action on a critical public policy question. The question of a different governance structure for Memphis City Schools offers us just such an opportunity, and perhaps, we can prove something to ourselves – that we can rise above normal political behavior to join hands to discuss and deliberate on the options for change.

There are arguments to be made in favor of mayor-led districts. There are questions to be answered about alternative organizational structures. There are positions to be explained and decisions to be made.

Breaking Away

But we are in no position to make them now. Our people deserve the chance to learn more about this issue and to have a voice in the process.

Because of it, there’s no rush to judgment on this question. There’s only the rush that comes from proving that we have the kind of maturity that is needed to consider one of our city’s most important issues.

Who knows? Maybe we can even break out of the civic dysfunction that keeps us from a shared purpose and a civic ambition to control our own destiny.


Harvey said...

Smart City,
I think you may be onto something with the last sentence of that post. Because this issue is dear to all Memphis city dwellers and hopefully because of our increasing maturity as a city, we can break new ground.

Plus, this isn't really a race issue in that the school board and the mayor haven't been diametrically opposed on the basis of race. There could be some good things cookin'.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Along those lines, i have sent an email to richard locker in response to his CA article this morning.

Tthe point is that - at least as of today - the MCS board are the
duly-elected managers of city schools.

We just might be fully supportive of a mayoral takeover, and we just
might be vehemently opposed.

One thing is for sure - and I'm almost certain the rational voters of Memphis will agree - the board deserves the RESPECT of being in on the conversation.

Finally, there is absolutely NOTHING about the way the city and/or county are being operated that makes me feel tingly all over about turning our children's education over to either.


Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr.
Keeping It Real Ministries, Inc.

Smart City Consulting said...

Thank you, commissioner, for taking the time to communicate with your constituents. We appreciate it.

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