The Deciders: The Memphis Schools Superintendent Decision, Take Two

| May 19, 2008
Former Superintendent Gerry House
Former Superintendent Gerry House
Let's try this another way.

Let's call the superintendent of the Memphis City Schools the decider.

Except the superintendent isn't really the decider. There are several deciders -- the nine elected members of the school board, some elected from districts and some elected at-large. Five of them, in fact, are running for reelection this year. The superintendent decider works for the school board deciders.

But even these deciders can only decide some things, and approving the $900 million budget is not one of them. Because the deciders at the Memphis City Council approve the budget and can withhold a lot of money and the deciders at the Shelby County Commission are ultimately the deciders on school funding matters for the whole county, Memphis included.

With so many deciders, it is not surprising that the last four superintendent deciders have been more like contestants in a Miss Cogeniality contest than contestants in a Tough Man contest. That goes for two male deciders -- Johnnie B. Watson and Dan Ward -- and two female deciders -- Gerry House and Carol Johnson. Four of the nicest, most soft-spoken, best-educated deciders you would ever want to meet. Even so, they had a hard time getting along with some of the school-board deciders on certain decisions. There's even been some talk of letting the governor decider appoint the Memphis schools decider, except he decided that wouldn't be such a hot idea.

Willie Herenton is a mayor-decider and former schools-decider who would like to be a schools-decider again if he could only make up his mind about his retirement and work with, or -- even better -- without the deciders on the school board. He has apparently decided to let the school-board deciders finish interviewing the finalists to be superintendent decider before they decide which one to pick, unless some more of them decide to drop out of the competition, as candidates Tiffany Anderson and James Williams did.

Anderson decided, rather late in the game it would seem, that there are too many deciders on the school board and the five deciders who are up for re-election might have a change of heart or lose their seats to other deciders.

Williams decided to stay in Buffalo. The 40-percent dropout rate among superintendent finalists is now uncomfortably close to the dropout rate among MCS high school students.

One of the most important decisions that deciders have to make is whether or not to close schools that are less than 60 percent capacity. Memphis has several of them, because parents, who are also deciders, decided to move to other parts of town that had newer, better, or safer schools and neighborhoods. Closing schools or "consolidating" them if you don’t like blunt language, is the only way to save any big money, according to a study some consultants did for the school board deciders a few years ago.

Closing a school is about the toughest, most sleep-depriving thing a decider can do. It's easy for non-deciders like columnists and editorial writers and consultants and non-profit organizations to recommend closing schools because they won the life lottery and don't live in those forlorn neighborhoods and kids in Memphis City Schools.

But it's quite another thing for someone like Johnnie Watson, who was an assistant superintendent decider a long time ago when a bunch of schools were closed and some people with long memories never got over it, including Watson himself. Or Gerry House, who didn't close any schools while racking up National Superintendent of the Year honors. Or Carol Johnson, who sort of recommended closing some schools but more than offset any savings by recommending building new schools and rebuilding some old ones and turning the "closed" ones into community centers. And then she decided to move to Boston.

If you are a school-board decider you won't be one for long if you decide to support closing a school, especially if it is in your district. So school-board deciders spend their time on things like dress codes, corporal punishment, bus routes, food service, campaigning for school board or city council, and even academics.

But when you get right down to it, the real deciders are the teachers and principals who have to enforce the discipline policies and improve those academics. Assuming, of course, that their students decide to come to school and pay attention. Which many of them don't. So the graduation rate takes a hit even if the teachers are as dedicated as the 89 new teachers from Teach For America that decided to work in Memphis for two years and are determined to raise everyone’s performance, no excuses.

One of the things that Willie Herenton rarely gets any credit for is not second-guessing the school superintendent. For 16 years he refused to do it, despite several timely opportunities. Any reporter who spent any time around the mayor knew he had doubts. The day Herenton signs on to something called Little Red School House or Roots and Wings -- actual names of Gerry House-era reform models -- is the day roasting hogs leap from their spits and fly to Arkansas. His abstinence hurt him politically, because mayors are blamed for the big-picture things in their cities, schools included, whether or not they exercise much influence over them. But he kept quiet.

In hindsight, it might have been better if he had bumped his big speech on schools ahead eight months. Then the 2007 mayoral election, with three credible candidates who were products of the Memphis City Schools, might have been a classic debate over two views of the world -- things as they are and things as they ought to be. Instead we had name-calling, drug challenges, and bitterness. The rest is history. What Memphis and the school board have to decide in the next 30 days is whether there should be a real superintendent decider or a bunch of deciders, and whether, style-wise, that man or woman should be as nice and congenial as, say, Gerry House, or as tough and crude as, say, a certain educator of Lean On Me fame when it comes to dealing with students who are not candidates for student council or homecoming court and teachers and principals who are not on anyone's search committee short list.

Whether the next superintendent is Nicholas Gledich, Kriner Cash, Yvonne Brandon, Willie Herenton, or someone else won't make much difference if he or she is not a real decider and leader with the know-how, command presence, and followers -- the "street cred," if you will -- to back it up.

Comments (2)

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Now see there, you could write a very thoughtful article on this debacle without resorting to the nonsense of last week.

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Posted by George Lord on 05/19/2008 at 8:36 PM

Where is your apology for referring to these candidates as potential HNIC? I will not be buying what your advertisers are selling, until you apologize.

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Posted by Billl Smith on 05/20/2008 at 7:18 AM
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