Johnnie B. Watson is a nice guy. But he's perhaps too nice to be superintendent of the political landmine that constitutes Memphis City Schools these days.
Watson announced his retirement Monday, effective December 2003. In his typical style, he sent out an understated memo to the school board and media outlets and told his executive staff during the group's Monday meeting. Then he held two hours open on his schedule and granted individual interviews to the media.
Watson's openness with the community is one of his strengths, but unfortunately, openness isn't enough, given this school board's predilection for controversy. Watson did a great job of rebuilding bridges to the community and MCS staff that previous superintendent Gerry House seemingly had burned. He is beloved by his staff and the teachers and principals within the district.
But Watson suffers from a perceived lack of clout. He hasn't ever come out strongly for or against anything (with perhaps the exception of KIPP Academy), a fact which seems to have encouraged certain members of the school board to run roughshod over him with insulting -- and often misguided -- public comments.
When the board started taking a more active role in the management of the school district, Watson sat back and said he worked at the will and the pleasure of the board. When the board became embroiled in conflict with the superintendent's staff over contracts, change orders, and "he-said/she-said" issues (something that's happened with more frequency in recent months), Watson's typical response was to scrap the issue until it met with commissioners' satisfaction.
In an interview with a Flyer reporter Monday, Watson said that neither his relationship with board member Sara Lewis, nor his relationship with the board in general, had anything to do with his decision to retire. While we respect his right to say so, especially with another year at the helm, we don't quite believe him.
It's admirable that Watson tried to stay above the petty wrangling that characterizes much of the board's recent behavior, but it may not have been to the district's advantage. Individual board members may have their own agendas, but Watson's agenda should be solely focused on the 118,000 youngsters in his charge. And if that agenda did not correlate with the board's actions, then he should have said so -- forcefully.
It's not going to be easy to find qualified applicants who will want to take on the challenges of Memphis City Schools. Superintendent jobs at large urban districts aren't seen as the career-building plums they once were. With state takeover of schools looming, a budget crisis in full bloom, and Watson's recently filed and dropped harassment complaint still fresh in the air, we don't foresee a plethora of qualified applicants banging on the door.
The district needs someone who will lead a charge, someone with the mettle to stand up to the board. Or stand with the board, if that be the case.
After House's tumultuous tenure, Watson was a comfortable fit for the position. He was an academic, a hometown guy beloved by his students, guaranteed not to ruffle any feathers. But the time for nice guys is over. We need someone looking for a good fight.