Thursday, May 29, 2008

National Search Headed Toward Mayor's Office

Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners deserves credit for doing what was right – conducting a national search to find a new superintendent – but it’s becoming obvious that soon, they will be forced to admit that they cannot ignore the person who wants the job more than anyone else – Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton.

Of course, these days, it’s not just about desire. It’s also about the mayor sitting on a pile of political grenades that he’s clearly willing to toss into the board’s process, either to sabotage the search (in the view of the haters) or to shock the board into recognizing his qualifications (in the view of the lovers).

Either way, his motivation at this point is secondary. The primary fact is that the mayor has effectively destroyed the opportunity for Memphis City Schools to hire anyone but him.

Third-rate Behavior

Despite widespread opinions to the contrary, both of the candidates for the vacant superintendent’s job are actually quality possibilities for the job, according to people who keep up with emerging talent in the education field. No, they may not have ever been a superintendent of a large urban district, but they have track records within two similar districts that indicate that they possess the intellectual honesty, the requisite skills and experience that would make their appointment less than a high-risk decision.

In fact, both are as experienced as Mayor Herenton was when he was named superintendent in 1979, and to get where they are in their present positions, they obviously have the ability to get an accurate view of the political landscape. That’s why it’s impossible to see either of them taking a job in a city where the mayor has already labeled them as third-rate candidates for the job.

Calling them third-rate was an unfortunate rhetorical lapse, even for someone famous for them, because surely Mayor Herenton knew, as soon as the adjective escaped from his mouth, that he had stepped over the line. In a more combative political environment, the school board, not to mention the candidates themselves, could have fired back with similar rhetoric about City Hall itself. After all, there are few key indicators for Memphis that have improved in the past decade.

Passionate Politics

That aside, all in all, it demonstrated powerfully yet again how Mayor Herenton commands the political stage whenever he wants to, and because of his unpredictability and rhetorical excesses, there just aren’t too many people who have the guts to respond to him, much less challenge him directly.

Because of it, we predict that the school board may take some twists and turns in its journey to a new superintendent, but the destination nonetheless is fated to end up at the mayor’s door.

Close political allies of Mayor Herenton say that they have not seen him as personally engaged about anything since his finest hour in the late 1990’s when he defeated the “tiny town” legislation that threatened to encircle Memphis with municipalities. Some say that the mayor’s outburst to The Commercial Appeal’s new City Hall reporter Amos Maki – whose stories are almost daily setting the news agenda – stemmed not so much from his disdain for the superintendent candidates as his simmering frustration with the school board for its failure to contact him about the job.

Writing On The Wall

So far, the board, which cumulatively barely has as many years of political experience as Mayor Herenton does singly, has stuck to its mantra: We are conducting a national search, and it must continue to its conclusion. Less obvious to them is that they probably have now reached its conclusion.

Proving his political mettle, Mayor Herenton’s endorsement for superintendent by key Memphis business leaders Henry Turley and Gary Shorb only hints at the broad support that the mayor is generating from the business community. While some are solidly in the Herenton column because they believe he is more qualified for the job than the two current finalists, others seem motivated by the opinion that no one can screw up Memphis City Schools more than it is now. As a result, their reasoning goes like this: What damage can he really do, and at any rate, it opens up City Hall to new leadership (or at least new leadership from county government as Mayor AC Wharton becomes the prohibitive favorite to take the next city mayor’s oath of office)?

Regardless of the reason, the support of the business elite (which we predicted several months ago) also sends a powerful message to the two finalists for the superintendent’s job that they should bow out before things here really get ugly. After all, absent strong support from City Hall and the private sector, any one who would take the job would seem to be interested in resume-building because they can’t intend to stay long without support that is so instrumental to success.

Instant Impact

Supporters of the mayor for the superintendent’s job claim that he would have be an instant impact player, because there would be no learning curve and because he would command attention and support that the district has not been able to garner in years. There is the prevailing belief by friend and foe alike that he could put his clout behind the district in a way that could translate into higher community confidence and greater private financial support.

One thing for sure is that the district’s budget hearings in local government would sure change, and Memphis City Schools’ appearance yesterday before the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is a case in point. The current school administration essentially threw its staff under the bus, allowing county commissioners to get away with their political body blows to staffers who could never penetrate their preconceived opinions with the facts.

It is impossible to imagine a scenario in which Superintendent Herenton would have allowed his staff to endure such a beating or sat quietly through it. That alone defines what he would bring to the district’s highest job, according to his advocates.


A footnote to the county budget committee meeting is the way that a mythology is building up around a consultant’s report for the Needs Assessment Committee who opined that no new schools ever need to be built in Memphis and Shelby County. It’s hard to take an objective view at the population shifts within Memphis and the deplorable conditions of so many city schools and comprehend how such a conclusion could be stated so flatly.

Perhaps, on paper, our community has enough physical structures, but the truth is that many of them are located in the wrong places, and dozens of the city schools are more than 50 years old (about 10 are more than a century old). In other words, students are being educated in the age of the Internet in buildings that were constructed before the invention of the radio.

If there was no need for new schools, it would of course be welcome news to Shelby County’s budgets, and that’s why it sometimes seems that wishful thinking has set in as county officials hope desperately that the consultant is right. That said, it’s not lost on city school officials that as long as the demand for new schools emanated from the white-majority county district, there seemed to be few questions in previous years, but now that the black-majority city district needs funds for better facilities, a hardening resistance surfaces.

A Deal’s A Deal

Because some county commissioners on the education committee went into a closed attorney-client meeting, the public is left to speculate on what decisions were being discussed that involved their tax dollars (not to mention the fact that closing the discussion seemed a stretch under current state law). On the surface, it seems fairly clear that an existing agreement obligates county government to satisfy the last year of its three year, $180 million capital funding agreement with the city and county districts.

County commissioners are right to be frustrated about the districts’ lack of sensitivity to their budgetary woes in the past, but it’s hard to see why they would think that the districts would waive a legally binding contractual agreement that they have with county government.

Whether you are for or against Mayor Herenton as superintendent, it’s provocative to imagine how he would have responded to the combative questioning and withering criticisms from Commissioners Mike Ritz and Wyatt Bunker. Selling tickets to that tug-of-war could be the “alternative revenue source” that’s the only sure-fire way to raise enough money to balance the county’s budget.


Anonymous said...

Good perspective-as always but
the main question seems to be lost in the politics--namely-


Reminds me of the HBO show-The
Wire--too bad-institutional dysfunction of public services-all around-at each level---with dire consequences-that could be avoided--


Ed reformer said...

Political Leaders are a Reflection of us

As I’ve been aborbing the lively banter (or rather bashing of Mayor Herenton) over the past months and yesterday, in particular, I can’t help but hang my hat on the philosophical brilliance of an old comedy special I recently watched (no, it wasn’t Fox or CNN or our local stations for that matter).

The notoriously complaining comic, George Carlin, acutely opined “One thing I don’t complain about is politicians. Everyone complains about politicians….but where do people think these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t pass through a prism from another reality. They come from American parents, American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses, and American universities. They’re elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do, folks. This is the best we have to offer.”

And so it is in Memphis. If we think we have a selfish, delusional city leader…and possibly superintendent, than it’s because we have selfish, delusional voters. In other words - garbage in, garbage out. Maybe Herenton is not the problem, maybe we are.

In yesterday’s CA article, which touted the support of some business leaders for Herenton’s superintendent candidacy, there were no fewer than 150 comments posted, (99% scathing, I might add). But what’s the logic in posting all of those comments, vilifying Herenton. You think he went home and boo-hooed last night over the criticism? NO! He probably loved it. He’s positioned himself on the cusp of the MCS top job. And you gotta give him his due – it’s not as if he has a hidden agenda. What you see is what you get. He’s been saying nutty, spooky, arrogant things for a long time – because he can. That’s right, we have continued to elect nutty, spooky,and arrogant, so we shouldn’t be surprised or outraged or head for the suburbs. We should all pick up a mirror and take a look at ourselves.

The ills that plague the city (particularly race and bad attitudes) is a result of a lot of folks checking out (and Herenton checking in). The City’s woes have to be everyone’s concern – but people have to participate, not through feckless jab throwing, but by finding, supporting, and voting for competent and good-intentioned people. For those folks who voted for the Mayor (and by implication bought into his nonsensical, ill-founded comments about race and who’s for them and against them), it’s because he’s the only one with the microphone. People respond positively when they perceive there is more than one viable option on the table. History has taught that lesson repeatedly when it comes to people choosing terrible (and dangerous) leadership.

So, Memphis: stop complaining about Herenton; engage in the process that puts competent people in power.

Anonymous said...

Herenton has a 70+ approval rating in the black community. On the flip side, it is almost 0 in the white community. Why would he ever worry about white voters support?

As for the MCS, it looks like it will be dissolved by the City Council and then it will go to court, which will take a while to settle. If Bredsen would have had the balls to take over the school system perhaps real reform could have been enacted. Having the SCS take over doesn't seem like a way to get change because the politicians on the County Commission exist in our dysfunctional Memphis/Shelby county political environment. Simply put, we don't have politicians capable of seriously addressing the MCS. It is almost a billion dollar industry in this city. The webs of influence, conflicts of interest, and cheaply bought politicians makes challenging the status quo near impossible.

gatesofmemphis said...

An aside, but the age of the school building doesn't matter.

As a father of a child in one of the 100+ year old schools, and a technologist, I can say there's nothing about the building that has kept it from having a computer lab and computers in every class, or will keep it from adapting to new technologies.

The challenge of air-conditioning was much greater than the challenge of the internet. With wireless technology and smaller, lower power machines, I think it's only going to get easier.

And of course people are taking classes in buildings that are much older than 100 years at Harvard, Virginia and all over Europe.

Build new schools if we must, but we can't blame the cost on technology or age.

Anonymous said...

They not only pushed ms. mercuro under the bus, 2 days later they ran the bus right over her and fired her.
(see today's CA)

What a loss to MCS.

She was a great boss, intellectual and forward thinking. generous and funny as hell. Everything MCS veterans don't want to have around.

wish I could sign this, but that would be a death knell.

Anonymous said...

Dan Ward should be held accountable for what he hs done regarding Louise Mercuro. She was the most intelligent individual in that cess pool on Avery.

Smart City Consulting said...

Gates: Sorry, we didn't make our point clearer. Because the schools are so old, many of them require expensive renovations, technological updates, reconfiguration of the space, etc. There's a disturbing and growing notion in local government that city schools just don't need money. It originated in the county's calls for the elimination of the ADA requirements that send money to Memphis City Schools every time the county schools got money for a new school, but it obscures the obvious fact that city schools need a great deal of capital money to create positive learning environments in all its schools. And there are schools whose conditions are so deplorable that there is no option but to level them.

gatesofmemphis said...

scm, I'm not sure what the schools are that need leveling, but Peabody, Rozelle, Central, Idlewild, Snowden are either past the century mark or close to it, and I'm pretty sure they are fine both architecturally and academically. Maintenance costs obviously are expensive, but so is new construction. Anyway, if they're already air-conditioned, what technological updates, reconfigurations, etc., do they need, that require expensive retrofitting? If anything, technology is pushing us further from custom educational brick and mortar, not closer.

If population increases demand it, we have to build new schools. And given Memphis' climate, we have to spend the money maintaining our already built schools.

But we must also beware of classic, unsustainable Memphis demolition/development churn disguised as educational or technological progressivism.

Smart City Consulting said...

gatesofmemphis: what we had more in mind are several schools that we have visited that are simply unfit for their present uses.

In addition, they are energy sieves, the space can't be configured for present needs, etc. We would vote for gutting some of them and completely renovating them, but somehow, this never finds its way onto the agenda. Also, the population trends do show that some areas - such as Frayser and the Kingsbury - will likely need new schools, hopefully not the warehouses that are being urged by some.

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