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Back to School?

As the new school year begins, the district seeks to change public perceptions.

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In an interview a few weeks ago, new Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash said he wasn't interested in going back to a small school district.

"I've done that and been there," he said. "I'm interested in the large challenges."

That's good to hear, because already it seems Cash will have nothing but large challenges.

Earlier this week, the Memphis City Schools board of commissioners heard plans to overhaul the district's literacy program, an update on corrective action at the beleaguered central nutrition center, and possible scenarios if the school system has to cut $30 million, $74 million, or a whopping $500 million from its budget.

In addition, when the state released its progress data in July, 30 Memphis City Schools were on the list of high-priority schools, while an additional 34 were cited as being in danger of becoming high-priority schools.

But when asked about the school system's challenges, Cash said, "It seems to me that our greatest challenge is to change the perception of our general constituents about our school system."

To do so, Cash said he would work on improving services and do a better job of publicizing and marketing the positives of the district. But two recent staffing decisions have already been perceived as leaving a mark.

Cash first hired former Miami-Dade schools security chief Gerald Darling to create a Memphis City Schools police force. Unfortunately, in Miami, Darling was cited in a sex scandal cover-up by a Florida grand jury.

Cash also hired David "Smokey" Gaines, athletic director at LeMoyne-Owen College, to replace MCS athletic director Wayne Weedon. But only days before his termination, Weedon had been given a positive evaluation.

Cash is investigating why and how that evalution was missing from Weedon's personnel file.

When I talked to Cash several weeks ago, I asked him why he — or anyone — would want to be superintendent of a large, urban school district. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad there are people out there who are interested in the job. But with the deck stacked against them, as it often seems to be, I wonder what they think they're getting out of it.

"It is one of the toughest jobs in America today," Cash said. "The issues are the demands and no-win situations that a lot of people feel. I don't feel that way, though. I come from a different cut of tree, and I always believe in turning negatives to positives."

There are plenty of negatives. More than 8,500 of the district's students are not proficient in math. Roughly 6,500 are not proficient in reading.

"No one in that group is going to be an engineer or a financial wizard," deputy superintendent of academic operations Irving Hamer told the MCS board. "There's a whole category of work they're not going to be able to do."

As the new superintendent, however, Cash said he has a mandate from Memphians to improve the system.

"Right now, right at this moment, we have to capture it, because there is a small revolution going on," he said.

If he's not careful, he could very easily squander that small revolution.

He said he thought it was exciting work and asked if I didn't agree. I said that I thought it was challenging work.

"I'm going to build coalitions," Cash replied, "and that's the key."

But he might be better off without some coalitions — or even the perception of some coalitions.

After Cash hired Gaines, someone realized that the former Globetrotter used to play basketball at LeMoyne-Owen College with Memphis mayor — and education enthusiast — Willie Herenton. And since the city administration was criticized for cronyism when Herenton appointed several former bodyguards and security staff to top administration positions, it looks like business as usual.

If Weedon had been let go in less suspicious circumstances, maybe it wouldn't have mattered. As it is, the story doesn't make sense, and it has left some citizens wondering if Cash has been co-opted by Herenton.

With public perceptions of MCS at the top of his list, Cash might want to take another look.

After our interview, the last thing Cash said was this: "I've got to attack the perception that there is a lack of quality leadership at these schools and the accountability in these schools. You do that — and we are — and you'll see a difference right away.

"Just follow me. Track it. Hold me accountable."

I'm sure the public will do just that.

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