Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Searching For A National Caliber Superintendent

Perhaps, the tepid pool of candidates for superintendent of Memphis City Schools is a result of the “Herenton Factor.”

Surely, there’s no question that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s highly publicized on-again, off-again pursuit of the superintendent’s job and his assertive agenda for reform at the district couldn’t be considered as helpful in scaring up the best nationally qualified candidates.

The message from Mayor Herenton is unmistakable. Even if he’s not a candidate for superintendent or drafted by the board of commissioners, he intends to be a force in decisions at Memphis City Schools.

Warning Shot

In answer to a question following his presentation about schools at Memphis City Council yesterday, he fired this warning shot: “If you go into a city as new superintendent and don’t have the support of the mayor and city leadership, you are doomed for failure.”

It sounded clear to us that he’s sending the message to the school board that he wants a role in the selection of the next superintendent. That’s not an unreasonable request.

In fact, in Nashville, where the school district is in the midst of its own search for a superintendent, the newly elected mayor has been involved in selecting the search firm and expects to be part of the selection process.

High Stakes

With $93 million in city funding at risk, it would seem pretty logical that city government should be part of the process here as well. Of course, it’s equally obvious to us that some grassroots leaders should also be included, but so far at least, we get the impression from the board that it’s not planning to allow the community to be directly engaged in the most appointment that’s ever made in this city.

While Mayor Herenton recently asked the City Council to refrain from cutting city funding for schools, at least for this year, it seemed obvious that if Memphis City Schools wants the money, it’s going to have to address some priorities from the mayor and City Council.

It’s about time. For decades, city government has been shipping its annual check without holding the district accountable for hitting some measurable goals. In this regard, we expect that some of the agenda items in Mayor Herenton’s presentation yesterday might just find their way into a contract between City of Memphis and Memphis City Schools.

Phase Two

As for the candidates submitted by the search firm, we suggest that the board of commissioners add a second phase to the process.

The search firm says that we now have the list of the five best candidates who applied for the job of superintendent. Now, let’s get a list of the very best candidates in the entire country who didn’t apply.

It’s what we call the Calipari theory – identify the best talent and go get them.

Paying Up

Then again, that’s what the University of Memphis did to lure Coach Cal here in the first place. And if we can afford to pay millions in salary to him to teach and coach about a dozen students, surely we can come up with whatever it costs to bring a superintendent here with national credentials to teach 113,000 students.

We suspect that the business and philanthropic leadership in this city would welcome the chance to raise the money to bring in an impact player for Memphis City Schools. The hole is too deep and the need too great to bring in someone who cannot have that kind of instant influence on the district.

The school board has already said that it’s willing to pay $260,000 for the next superintendent. What level of talent could we get if we were willing to pay twice that amount?

A Small Price To Pay

If we can spend more than $9,000 each year in per pupil expenditures, surely we can pay about $4 a year per pupil to get the kind of superintendent that we really need.

And if we pay that person this level of incentive to come to Memphis, we predict that our district will become more than just a springboard to the next superintendent’s job.

As the board of commissioners proceeds with this process, we hope its members won’t be hypnotized with the data that is regularly cherry picked by the administrative staff and delivered up with great self-satisfaction.

Great City Schools

The latest example was the “Beating The Odds” report by the Council of Great City Schools that lauded Memphis for its improvement on state tests over the past four years, because our district’s rate of increase surpassed the rate of the state.

Of course, unmentioned was the fact that the state tests have been dumbed down to the level that they are essentially irrelevant in determining students’ proficiency. Also, unmentioned was the simple mathematical fact - if your base number is low, any improvement sounds impressive. (After all, if I only make $1 a year and increase it to $2, I’ve increased my salary 100%. It sounds impressive, but left unsaid is I’m still poor.)

But more to the point, the Council of Great City Schools is a membership organization and Memphis City Schools gets what it pays for with these reports.

Valentine’s Day

The organization’s executive director even took the opportunity to send a Valentine to former Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson, crediting her reforms with the “terrific gains” by the district in the past five years.

Dr. Johnson just happens to be secretary/treasurer for Council of Great City Schools and a member of the organization’s executive committee.


Anonymous said...

Someone like Michelle Rhee of Washington, DC. Shake it up, no more business as usual.

Harvey said...

Smart City or Anyone: What is the per capita salary for a superintendent based on size of constituency for the top 200 cities by population in America?

Is Memphis way behind currently in our salary? Would making the superintendent's salary $500,000 push Memphis to the forefront in per capita salary and in total salary?

I think its a little shortsighted to suggest that more money will cause someone who is not currently interested in the Memphis city job to change their mind. If there is a surplus of qualified candidates who aren't interested in the job (not saying there are, but if there are) maybe it is because they see what they might be getting into.

Would you want to come to a job that has the challenges Memphis City Schools offer AND deal with a mayor who has flirted strongly with returning to that job AND holds near mythic status in the minds of many Memphians? On top of that, he has hinted that if the new superintendent is not in agreement with the mayor, they are "doomed to failure" I know I wouldn't want to walk into a situation like that, no matter what the amount of money was.

Against that, I believe Mayor Herenton should be offering a helping hand and the wealth of experience he has to the new superintendent, not a veiled threat that will only serve to burden our new Sup's job. Of course, that scenario could only play out if the Mayor made it totally clear, once and for all, what his plans are for after his time as mayor. Instead, he continues to make murky hints that are up to interpretation. The craziest part is that not only do we not demand clarity from his statements, we seem to enjoy when he dances around this issue.

Instead, he lays out a comprehensive plan (which by the way, seems like it has some great facets) on how to save the city schools and says, in effect, if the new Sup doesn't do this, he is in for a tough road as the leader of our schools.

So, no, money will not make that situation better, nor will it attract anyone who is skilled and seasoned enough to Memphis unless they are intentionally looking for the toughest situation possible. In my opinion those kind of people are either overly zealous or overly greedy for money. Neither of those qualities should be at the top of the list for a candidate, in my opinion

Anonymous said...

Nationally the average salary for a school district with 25,000 students or more is $200,751 according to the American Association of School Administrators. Given that our district is four times larger, should our salary be four times the amount? Doubtful, but you get the jist.

The $260,000 salary suggested by Ray and Associates, the search firm, is in line with what other large urban districts are paying in Tennessee; however, Memphis is the largest.

Compare the salary of Michelle Rhee of Washington DC, $275,000 plus bonuses if she meets achievement goals laid out in her contract. Then consider that there is an additional position in DC taking care of all the operations with a like salary. In other words DC is spending more than half a million to address the problems there. Note that the situation there is not unlike that of Memphis. By the way, Rhee better be in-step with Mayor Fenty of DC as she reports directly to him and not to a school board. Recently research by Ken Wong of Brown University, formerly Vanderbilt U, has shown the successes this type of arrangement is bringing to districts around the country.

When a corporation looks for a top leader they don't put an ad in the Wall Street Journal; they go find him/her. I believe SmartCity is saying that MCS needs to do the same.


Harvey said...


I agree with your final sentiment about the search process. But, the comparison to DC has too many holes.

Their mayor is a 35 old lawyer and career politician, not an educator and not yet at least, a mayor who hands down thinly veiled ultimatums.

At least Rhee and Fenty have a clear, defined relationship. As it stands, unless our next Superintendent walks in step with Herenton, he/she will have a plagued tenure that feels the constant pressure of a mayor who is holding a proverbial gun over their head and a city that supports that Mayor.

My main point is this: Lack of money is not a huge roadblock to us getting a qualified superintendent. It plays a quiet second fiddle to the stormy climate that the candidate would be entering. Since Mayor Herenton has chosen to "lay down the law" about his proposal and hasn't offered a laurel branch to any newcomers (big suprise), no one is going to come to Memphis knowing they have to work in the city that has its favorite son breathing down his neck.

I can see it now, Mr,/Mrs. X from the "Urban School district X that is very similar to Memphis" comes in and takes the job. 6 months later, when he/she hasn't adopted all of Herenton's plans and we haven't yet seen a return to the days of East and Central topping the national school rankings, Herenton "reminds" the city that he was a pretty good superintendent in his day and that we and the superintendent were stupid not to listen to him.

If we are not getting looks or seeing interest from the best superintendents in America, maybe it is more because of this situation than because of the money.

Anonymous said...

As we try to resolve the problems of MCS I hope we don't fall into the trap of saying we can't do it because of this personality or that personality. Mayor Herenton, in his speech the other day, made it clear that this needs to be about the schools and the children and not him. Saying we cannot do it because of him becomes an excuse which will paralyze us. He is the mayor, for better or worse.

I agree that the problems and politics of Memphis are great. I don't think that means we should not try to achieve the best solution possible. Often people say we can't solve the problems of education by "throwing money at it." However, in this country we seem very content to throw money at any problem we believe we can solve with a military solution. Amazing isn't it. The cost of one Bomber is often greater than the cost of educating all the children in Memphis for a year.

Yes, the situation in DC is different, though I am not sure people there would agree with your characterization of Fenty, there is much distrust among many regarding the schools there. All cities and school systems are different, each is unique, however, the problems facing many of them are quite similar.

DC is like Memphis in many ways. Though the school district there is much smaller (about 67,500 students). The problems faced in urban school districts are not insurmountable. It took a long period of neglect to get here and most of the problems are associated with the poverty of the residents in these urban areas. We could continue to lament these problems or we can look for the leadership to address them.

I do not think there are any silver bullet solutions to education. The solutions are to be found in providing the support for the teachers to do the best job possible. I fear our current centralized approach at MCS is not doing that very well. We do need strong leadership in this district to get back on track. We also need leadership which in not afraid to reach out to the community for the support necessary.

Current "leadership," from the board to the administration is all too often taking a head in the sand approach and denying that there are problems. This is not about fixing blame on these individuals, it is about the leadership necessary to step up to the plate and take the bold steps for the future. Michelle Rhee is doing that in DC, Joel Kelin is doing that in NY, Rudy Crew is doing that in Miami-Dade. We need to find someone willing to do that in Memphis.


Harvey said...

George I agree with your last post. It was eloquent and right on. Let me ask you this.

Do you agree with me that it is vital for the city (gov't and people) to give our new superintendent (whether that be Willie Herenton or anyone else) as much support as possible and create a job environment that allows him/her the tools and room to tackle his/her part in the Memphis City Schools situation?

Anonymous said...




Smart City Consulting said...

Thanks, Harvey and George, for the best discussion we've heard about these issues in months.

Kelvin Oliver said...

I have seen the finalists for the next superintendent that was releasted in PDF file on WREG.