Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Back To The Future: Superintendent Herenton

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton reminds me of an absurdist friend who told his wife that he was having an affair, but he wasn’t sure where it was headed, and he might be back to her in the end.

Her response: “What makes you think I want you if she doesn’t?”

It’s a feeling familiar to many of the voters who just a few months ago cast their ballots to put Mayor Herenton back in City Hall. To most of them, it’s time for the mayor to be make up his mind - choose where he wants to be most, and if it’s Memphis City Schools, resign and go after the superintendent’s job.

Chaos Theory

If there’s ever been a disciple of chaos theory, it must be Mayor Herenton. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we’re not as comfortable with the idea that logical decisions can be regularly made in the midst of illogical confusion. The current chaos is such that it almost appears that Mayor Herenton is looking for the public to make a Faustian bargain – wanting him out of City Hall so badly that they pressure the school board to hire him as superintendent of Memphis City Schools.

All in all, his latest foray into political chaos was based on a faulty legal opinion that led him to believe that he could bequeath the mayor’s office to his chief administrative officer Keith McGee. Based on these legal miscalculations, our current mayor thought Mayor McGee would give him a continued voice in City Hall operations, but more to the point, he would protect his loyalists – especially former bodyguards – who would remain undisturbed as their pensions soared, because retirement checks would be based on their higher current salaries.

It was the latest example of the poor personnel decisions that the mayor has a propensity to make. While Mr. McGee is a genuinely fine person, he’s about the last person that City Hall insiders would have targeted as future mayoral material. In an unofficial survey, he was rated at the bottom of the list of city CAO’s for the past 20 years, and on his watch, the city administration has become disjointed on its best days and dysfunctional on its worst.

Hiring Weakness

We mention this because it’s also pertinent in examining Mayor Herenton’s 13 years as superintendent of Memphis City Schools. As superintendent, Mr. Herenton came into those jobs with a competent staff that was responsible for a well-run operation, and he had the wisdom to leave them in place. At Memphis City Schools, those people included Ray Holt who ran business operations with a skill unseen since.

Like his tenure in City Hall, as these people left, the integrity of operations deteriorated along with any dependable connection between vision, policy and operations. In their places, he often selected key staff members who were noticeably unprepared for their critical positions.

The challenge for Mayor Herenton, if selected to be superintendent, is that there is not now a cadre of high-performing senior managers at the district. That’s why right about now, the mayor needs to be looking up Mr. Holt’s phone number.

In addition to the immediate need to recruit and appoint a staff with national credentials to run an urban district, if Mayor Herenton becomes superintendent again, he will find it a brave new world shaped largely by the zest to test culture ushered in by No Child Left Behind, the federal law aimed at bringing higher standards to American schools but now seems to be eroding the educational system it purports to serve.

Back To The Future

If the past is any indication of the future, the once and future superintendent would be expected to act on some of the core beliefs that guided him in the 1980’s:

Decentralized management. He said back then that his philosophy was for a district where decisions were shifted down from the Avery Avenue mother ship into sub-district leaders.

Deregulated school management. He removed regulations and policies handcuffing the leadership of targeted schools in return for greater accountability.

School-based decision-making. When he was elected mayor, he had just begun to implement policies to give more power to principals to run their own schools, free of district interference.

Teacher-focused reform plans. As a Rockefeller Fellow, he studied the programs in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and said the experience contributed to his advocacy for innovative programs that put teachers at the center of learning.

Early student intervention. He called for programs that aimed at improving student readiness and early reading skills.


Many of these were his priorities as he shifted his attention from the district to City Hall, and they would likely be his priorities again. Critics from his days as superintendent complain that he had a “program du jour” approach that made it difficult to measure improvements before something new was announced.

The world of public education has dramatically changed in the 16 years since he left Memphis City Schools, but it’s nothing compared to changes in district politics. Back then, the city’s first African-American superintendent worked for a majority Caucasian, liberal-leaning board that regularly backed away from confrontation and acquiesced to him. Those days are gone forever, and the now predominantly African-American makes racial politics irrelevant.

In the end, however, the greatest threat to his appointment may be his temperament, not his 16-year absence from education. It’s worth remembering that the adjectives used often to describe him as superintendent – arrogant and confrontational – were the same ones used over the past 16 years to describe him as mayor.

The Right Focus

In other words, Memphis City Schools isn’t your father’s district any more, but that said, it ran better under Superintendent Herenton than it has under anyone since. If he was given a grade for those days, it would probably be a B, and right now, that would be an upgrade for the district.

In this regard, Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioner deserves the opportunity to complete the national search that we all urged it to undertake – and it should be a straight up, honest process. In that process, Mayor Herenton deserves the opportunity and whatever time he needs to present the comprehensive plan that he’s been developing for the future of Memphis City Schools.

At the end of the day, only one thing matters: Memphis City Schools is in crisis. The ultimate question to be answered now is who is best equipped to be the agent for change that is so desperately needed. And, nothing about that answer should be preordained.


Anonymous said...

Whoever survives the hiring PROCESS and fits the CRITERIA will get the job, not someone who is trying to subvert the process and break the "Sunshine Law" at the same time.
No more Willy!
Step away from both offices. It doesn't mean you can't contribute, but, you've been in too long and need to go.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe anyone broke the sunshine law. The Mayor is not restricted from having one on one meetings with any elected official that I am aware of.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right, I'm no attorney, but why can't the mayor meet with another elcted official? Now if he meets with two city council members, who may deliberate, that might be a violation, imo. Anyone have any insight?

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 1:44:

You are right. Mayor Herenton can meet with any member of a legislative body or public board or commission as long as there is only one member present. He doesn't count, because the Sunshine Law doesn't apply to his meetings. From what we have been told, he has not met with two school board members at one time.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, I believe it is not unusual at all for members of the school board to meet, talk on the phone, text message, and e-mail each other on a regular basis. One need only recall the very childish e-mail sent by the current president of the board to other board members during on of heir meetings.

memphisj said...

Great analysis, thanks for the historical context and insight. Its the kind of thing one should expect from the local paper had it not either let go of or farmed out to bureaus the writers most qualified to cover this.
I've always been reluctant to over-criticize Herenton despite wanting him gone, so much of it slips into racism when the discussion turns that way. But this is really his jump-the-shark moment. I too thought he had a pretty good first couple of terms but now we've become a three-ring circus with few options. To unleash this at a time when a national recession will no doubt take a large toll on poverty-stricken Memphis is the height of arrogance. I know its a democracy and Chumney and Morris had every right to both run, but if someone had checked their ego and stepped back we would have a new mayor. Better, I don't know, but could it be any worse? For once I'd like to see someone who is in office or running who would put the citizens of Memphis first, I feel like I'm living in a never-ending episode of The Wire.
I live in Cooper Young and the past few days we've had some scary, brazen robberies and Herenton says he "protected" us by running for Mayor. I've always believed that those who want change in laws or politicians should do it at the ballot box, but this is one liberal who is ready to sign the recall petition.

Anonymous said...


I don't think your sentiment is at all in opposition to your stated liberal leanings. In fact I believe that at the center of a liberal democracy is the right of the citizenry to oppose a government which it deems is not serving it. The "recall" is a democratic act and one steeped in the tradition of liberal democracy.

Tom Guleff said...

I would find it hard to believe that the city school board (one of the incubators for up and coming politicians) would allow the mayor to rule the roost at MCS, unless politics has changed recently from the last 10,000 years.