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Crash Landing

How Superintendent Willie Herenton lost control of his classroom.

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So the Herenton mayoralty has morphed into Groundhog Day — with a difference.

Instead of the main character's beginning and ending each day the same way, with the events in between being identical from day to day, Mayor Willie Herenton is making the same bombshell announcement every day — but each time with a distinct variation.

In Monday's version, the mayor was still offering to resign — sort of — but only on condition that he gets back the school superintendent's job which, on day two or day three of this saga, had become the rationale for casting off his City Hall job. Otherwise, apparently, he stays in the saddle.

And at day's end, as if impatient to spring his revised Tuesday version of this soap opera, Herenton was letting it slip, via a Channel 3 TV tease amplified in Wednesday's Commercial Appeal, that he had already met with Memphis school board members — allegedly one-on-one.

Leaving aside the question of whether these surreptitious gatherings skirted the edge of the state Sunshine Law, they certainly seemed to underline the seriousness of the "superintendency hypothesis." And it made it all the more imperative to review Herenton's history with the Memphis City Schools — particularly the stormy, unsettling way in which he and MCS parted company back in 1991.

Over the last several days, in the course of a few media interviews that appear to have been tightly restricted as to subject, the mayor has consistently indicated that his surprise resignation is related to a desire to serve again as school superintendent.

In at least some of those media interviews, the mayor has given the impression that, after serving successfully but more or less uneventfully for 12 years as superintendent (and 28 years in MCS altogether, including stints as both teacher and principal), he voluntarily retired in order to pursue some other life options, notable among them a career in politics.

Inasmuch as media turnover in Memphis, as in most markets our size, is fairly brisk, there are few active reporters on hand who were plying their trade at the time Herenton departed the school system, and such institutional memory as does exist seems to have given the mayor the benefit of the doubt concerning the circumstances of his leaving.

The facts, and they have long been documented, are that Superintendent Herenton, at a time when he was widely admired for his educational abilities and was being courted by at least three major urban school systems, saw his reputation seriously undermined locally — first, by allegations of improper conduct from a teacher with whom he was having an affair; then, by a consultant's report that suggested that MCS was beset with serious administrative irregularities.

"It would hurt his chances of becoming mayor."

Here, for the previously admiring and unexpecting outer world to see, was a brief item that appeared in USA Today on May 7, 1989:

"MEMPHIS — Bellevue Junior High teacher Mahnaz Bahrmand filed a $3 million breach-of-contract suit against school Supt. Willie Herenton. Bahrmand claims Herenton reneged on his vow to marry her because it 'would hurt his chances of becoming mayor.'"

That condensed paragraph was, of course, but a shred compared to the reams and reels of extensive local media coverage given the Herenton-Bahrmand relationship at the time, including surveillance photographs of the superintendent and Bahrmand at Memphis International Airport, preparing to board a flight together.

An August 3, 1989, news report in the Chicago Tribune concerning that city's quest for a new school superintendent referred to Herenton as a "top candidate" for both that job and for a vacant superintendent's position in New York and commented:

"What could be causing the Chicago school board to have some difficulty in making a final decision on Herenton is a controversy involving a lawsuit filed by a Memphis teacher against him. She has alleged that he beat her, forced her to have two abortions and made promises of promotions that were not kept. "Herenton has acknowledged having a personal relationship with the teacher, but otherwise denied her charges ... ."

"Frivolous" accusations On August 4, 1989, The New York Times, in its report on New York's search for a new superintendent, had a similar story about Herenton, whom the paper would make clear throughout its coverage that year was a leading candidate, perhaps the prime one, for the New York superintendency.

And New York Newsday, on August 11, 1989, filed a report on New York's hunt for a superintendent that went this way:

"A popular figure [in Memphis] and often mentioned as a mayoral candidate, Herenton is embroiled in a suit this summer filed by a local math teacher. She has alleged in a five-page lawsuit that during a two-year affair with Herenton, he beat her, forced her to have two abortions, caused a third pregnancy to end in a miscarriage, breached a promise to marry her and falsely promised to promote her.

"Herenton was married most of that time, and is now divorced. Although he acknowledges he had had an affair with the woman, he says he considers'her accusations, in large measure, frivolous and being used for selfish, political and personal needs.'

"He turned down the Atlanta superintendency in late 1987. But he said Friday, 'I am very interested in pursing the challenge of providing leadership to the largest public school system in the nation."

As the mayor has accurately noted this week, this was a time when he was being sought after by other municipalities and jurisdictions. He had turned down an offer to be Tennessee Commissioner of Education and, as the Newsday article indicates, had been offered and had temporarily accepted the superintendency of the Atlanta school system.

Indeed, what had kept Herenton in Memphis in 1987 was a series of apparently spontaneous local demonstrations beseeching him to stay.

In a nutshell, Bahrmand's charges were a monkey wrench thrown into what had begun to seem Willie Herenton's virtually unlimited prospects for advancement as an educator. Ultimately, the New York and Chicago jobs, either of which he might have claimed under normal circumstances, went to other candidates. The OCI Report — and Sisson

Later in 1989, the suit brought against Herenton by Bahrmand was settled, and its terms and provisions have remained sealed to the public.

In the wake of Bahrmand's suit, the formerly supportive board had commissioned a study of the school system's management by a North Carolina firm, Organization Consultants Inc. That firm submitted a report on September 25, 1989, which enumerated abundant instances of waste and mismanagement and which documented low morale among teachers and pervasive distrust of the MCS administration.

More or less simultaneously, then Shelby County commissioner Pete Sisson, chairman of the commission's education committee, launched his own investigation into the school system, one which lasted, in one form or another, until the time of Superintendent Herenton's resignation from the system, announced October 30, 1990, effective June 30, 1991.

Sisson requisitioned documents concerning purported over-expenditures for equipment, much of which allegedly remained unused or duplicated functions already accounted for. The commissioner amassed evidence seeming to show excessive travel and preferential treatment of MCS personnel favored by Herenton and other administrators. Complaints from disgruntled teachers flowed in, charging everything from ineffective educational programs to misuse of funds to extracurricular hanky-panky on the part of the superintendent and others.

Losing Control of the Classroom

All of this negative attention did much to undermine Herenton's status. He had enjoyed a relatively high degree of prestige throughout most of his administration and had been named to a variety of corporate boards. And he could boast some bona fide accomplishments.

Some of the superintendent's innovations — ranging from site-based planning to an emphasis on optional schools — endure to the present day. Test scores of the district's largely impoverished student base improved marginally, both with regard to a local baseline and in comparison with demographically similar districts elsewhere in the nation.

Despite allegations from his critics of overspending, Herenton was able to maintain surpluses from year to year, even though he usually had less funding to deal with than he had requested to meet the district's needs. In the post-Bahrmand atmosphere and with allegations flying in the wake of the OIC study and Sisson's investigation, the superintendent's budget battles with the school board and with increasingly skeptical local government bodies intensified.

As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, push was so clearly coming to shove that the once high-flying superintendent's days were clearly numbered. Public suspicion and criticism of his tenure — much of it exacerbated by an ever implicit racial dividing line — increased exponentially.

In the idiom of education, Herenton had begun to lose control of his classroom. It was within this mood of mounting crisis that the superintendent in 1990 began behind-the-scenes negotiations with his board that would result in a de facto buyout of his contract — one containing controversial clauses and conditions that were withheld from the public when Herenton's retirement was announced in late 1990.

"Double Dipping"

So masked were the conditions of Herenton's city schools retirement agreement that even today, 18 years after the event, brand-new conspiracy theories have surfaced, alleging that Mayor Herenton, by resigning and becoming superintendent once more, would stand thereby to enhance the pension he earned from his years of service with Memphis City Schools.

As the theory goes, since Herenton served 28 years with MCS and was granted another more or less honorary year as part of his 1991 settlement agreement with the school board, he would greatly escalate his pension during his first additional year of service should he get hired again as superintendent.

The problem with that theory is Herenton has already been credited with 30 years of service, with all the pension benefits which would ensue. That was a condition that he negotiated back in 1991 as an essential part of his retirement agreement with the school board.

That fact escaped public notice at the time but was revealed in a Flyer story of February 13, 1992. The article, entitled "Double Dipping," was published barely a month after Herenton, now fully redeemed as a public figure, had taken the oath as Memphis mayor. Herenton had become the first African American to gain the office via election, in an upset victory over incumbent mayor Dick Hackett that was justly regarded as epochal in its implications.

"Double Dipping" was so titled because of its revelation that during the course of the same year that he would be serving as the city's fully salaried chief executive, Herenton would continue to be carried under the classification "full time, active" on the books of Memphis City Schools. He would, in fact, be drawing his former annual MCS salary of $120,717, while being paid $100,000 to run Memphis city government.

Moreover, this extra year of service was interpreted as being added to a de facto severance year — making his total 30 years official instead of the 29 years of service announced to the public at the time of Herenton's retirement announcement. The "30th" year was added in the course of a technical supplement to the retirement package worked out between Herenton and then acting superintendent Ray Holt, the former deputy who had temporarily succeeded his boss.

The difference, in pension benefits alone, would amount to at least $500,000 (the sum was subject to adjustments for inflation and cost-of-living increases) over the course of the ensuing 20 years.

J.C. Williams, the school board president who signed the buyout package on behalf of the school system (the only other signatory was Herenton), would acknowledge the stealth nature of these financial add-on features.

"I did not know that Dr. Herenton intended to remain on the school payroll, and I did not find out that he was still being carried until late last year," said Williams in February 1992, insisting that, had he known, he would not have signed the buyout agreement.

Herenton himself would maintain that the agreement was like any other executive retirement package and, moreover, was consistent with roll-over provisions contained in his existing contract with the school board.

The new mayor could certainly not be faulted for having negotiated such unexpectedly favorable terms. He was free to do so, and, in a way, it spoke to an innate shrewdness that might serve him well in his new and challenging job as mayor of an urban metropolis.

Mal Mauney was chairman of the school board's personnel committee in 1992 and did much of the negotiating with Herenton. He noted the retiring superintendent's strong support base in the African-American community and commented wryly: "Frankly, there were some of us who wanted to fire him outright. But let's face it. Unless we struck a bargain which we could get him to agree to, he was unassailable."

Regardless, that's how one career ended and another began, perhaps — after 16 mayoral years that have been both widely admired and widely criticized — to recycle into a reprise of that first career. For a more detailed version of this column, go to memphisflyer.com.

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