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Trouble In and Out of School: Part Two -- How Superintendent Willie Herenton's Sand Castle Eroded

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Part Two of a Series. Read Part One here.

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 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 superintendent's job which, on Day Two or Three of this saga, had become the rationale for casting off his City Hall job. Otherwise, apparently, he stays in the saddle. For better or for worse.

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, that he had already met with School Board members -- "behind closed doors," as the expression went. Those meetings turned out to have been with selected members on an alleged one-on-one basis, as reported in a Tuesday-morning article in The Commercial Appeal.

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 Willie Herenton's history with the Memphis City Schools - and particularly the stormy, unsettling way in which he and MCS parted company back in 1991.

In Part One of this series, we reviewed the Eliot Spitzer-like incident of 1989 in which an estranged paramour - a math teacher in the school system- filed suit against the then schools superintendent, accusing him of sexual improprieties, battery, and reneging on promises of marriage and promotions.

Almost certainly, this misadventure damaged Herenton's chances of landing either of the two choice superintendent's positions, in New York and Chicago, for which he had been a prime - perhaps the prime - candidate that year.

  • The OCI Report -- and Sisson

    Later in 1989, the suit brought by this plaintiff, Mahnaz Bahrmand, was settled, and its terms and provisions have remained sealed to the present day. But the charges brought by Bahrmand - especially those involving Herenton's alleged promises of favoritism toward her - begat suspicion of the superintendent on the part of a School Board that had been mostly supportive up to that point.

    In the wake of Bahrmand's suit, the 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 Sept. 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 extra-curricular hanky-panky on the part of the superintendent and others.

  • 'Losing Control of the Classroom'

    All of this negative attention did much to undermine the status of Herenton, who had enjoyed a relatively high degree of prestige throughout most of his administration. He had been named to a variety of corporate boards and was seen in much he same light locally as elsewhere in the nation, where he was a coveted speaker on the banquet circuit and, as previously indicated, a leading contender for vacant superintendent's positions in major urban districts like New York, Chicago, and Atlanta.

    Much of this celebrity and respect was due to the same air of command which, combined with controlled affability and his professional manner, would contribute to Herenton's political success in subsequent years. But much, too, could be attributed to his actual 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. A move to raise the number of black teachers and administrators relative to whites generated tensions here and there but was largely applauded as being in keeping with the predominantly African-American makeup of the district.

    Despite allegations from his critics of over-spending, 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 '80s turned into the '90s, push was so obviously 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, Willie 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.

    Next: How mystery clauses magically turned 28 years of service into 30 years for salary and pension purposes; "Double Dipping," as the ex-superintendent, even more magically, became mayor of Memphis.

    To be continued...

    Go to Part Three.

    Read Part One.

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