The Problem with Kriner Cash

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Kriner Cash
  • Kriner Cash
Kudos to The Commercial Appeal and reporter Jane Roberts for getting MCS to release records of Booker T. Washington principal Alisha Kiner's 2009 suspension, but it should not have taken such unusual effort to get the information.

Unfortunately it is characteristic of the tenure of Kriner Cash as superintendent. Media requests for such basic information as enrollment are met with instructions to file a Freedom of Information request. That is what The CA did to get Kiner's records. Releasing that information a year ago might have scuttled BTW's chances of winning a shout-out and visit from President Barack Obama this year, but the fortress mentality at MCS precedes that event.

BTW's outlier graduation rate caught my attention last year and I wrote about it in February, arguing that it was not replicable due to a significant enrollment decline in one year. The column drew a rebuke in a signed comment from Alisha Kiner. At a school board meeting, Cash singled out BTW for praise and compared its performance to optional schools White Station and Central, which I thought was unfair to BTW, misleading on the part of Cash, and inaccurate. A couple of months later the stakes were raised when BTW became a finalist for the Obama visit.

As The CA reported, there were people in MCS who knew about Kiner's suspension and there was even a petition. I heard from some of them and encouraged them to come forward. I assumed, wrongly, that internal pressure would force MCS to divulge any potentially embarrassing information before Obama's visit. An education blogger also wrote about the BTW graduation rate. And my former colleague Mary Cashiola, who is now spokeswoman for Mayor A C Wharton, wrote about her problems getting public information from MCS on enrollment that might influence school-closing decisions.

School board members apparently did not know about the suspension. Dr. Jeff Warren said disciplinary issues involving teachers and principals are for management to handle, while the board deals with policy.

"That typically won't come to us," he said.

Warren is sympathetic to Kiner. He believes she was new to BTW and made a mistake for which she has paid the price. "She has become an exemplary principal," he said.

Board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. said he did not know about the suspension until reading about it Thursday.

"Institutionally, the board knew - or should have known - about it as a function of our oversight responsibilities, even if that knowledge was very general in nature," he said.

Like most Memphians, I was moved by the televised BTW graduation and Obama's visit. I later met some of the graduates at a civic club luncheon and was very impressed by them. There are apparently some positive things going on at BTW under Kiner's leadership.

But the end doesn't justify the means, whether it's college sports programs chasing national championships or public school systems under pressure to increase test scores and graduation rates. The good work of many can be tainted by the cheating of a few.

I don't happen to think that Kiner's suspension is as big a deal as, say, the lawsuit last week against First Horizon over $883 million of its mortgages, which the CA ignored for four days. But that's not the issue. The Kiner suspension was news because of BTW's remarkable improvement in graduation in one year and moreso when the school was singled out for national acclaim.

In education, big improvements are hard to make in a year or two. That is not to say they don't happen, but the underlying facts must be known before a super teacher or super principal is hailed. Many outstanding teachers and principals labor in anonymity and achieve slow, steady progress. Happily, some of them are getting recognition, like the math teacher at Whitehaven High School who was the subject of a story in The Commercial Appeal earlier this year. A friend of mine whose wife is a standout advanced calculus teacher is trying to get the College Board to identify extraordinary AP teachers. I hope they do.

Honest data and prompt, full disclosure are crucial as the Memphis and Shelby County school systems move toward a merger. Spin and stonewalling won't work. Trite as it sounds, that's the main thing.

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