Herenton Portrait Unveiled as New Schools Era Begins



Willie Herenton was back in the Hall of Mayors Thursday for the first time in more than two years.

Herenton, joined by his 90-year-old mother and hundreds of friends and past and present city employees, was there for the unveiling of his portrait. He served as mayor for 17 years, longer than anyone in Memphis history. Mayor A C Wharton introduced him with his usual graciousness. Herenton, who showed emotion and his famous feistiness, spoke for about 35 minutes, recalling his youth in segregated Memphis and his razor-thin election in 1991.

"History will be kind to me," he said, "because it will reveal the truth."

Herenton's portrait hangs next to those of his predecessors Dick Hackett, Wyeth Chandler, and Henry Loeb, among others. His is the only black face in the group. It was painted by artist Larry Walker and is inside an ebony frame, at the former mayor's request.

Samuel H. Mays
  • Samuel H. Mays
By coincidence, or perhaps not, the ceremony came during a momentous 24-hour period. Late Wednesday, federal judge Samuel Hardy Mays adopted the consent decree merging the city and county school systems, writing that "it prevents years of litigation and establishes the basis for cooperative solutions based on good public policy rather than legal solutions imposed by the court." On Thursday, the transition team for the school systems merger held its first meeting and the seven-member Shelby County Board of Education held its last meeting. Trite as it sounds, it really was the end of one era and the dawn of a new one.

Herenton will play a minor part in the brave new world of public education if his application for a charter school is accepted, and how could it not be? He is a child of Memphis, a Booker T. Washington High School graduate, and former teacher, administrator, and school superintendent. The proliferation of charter schools, possibly including one led by Herenton, strongly suggests that enrollment in the combined city and county system will decline and that there will be even more school choices than there are now. Suburban municipalities could also start their own systems after September 2013.

Earlier Thursday afternoon, the county school board, as presently constituted, held its last meeting. It will be reconstituted in October as a 23-member board including the current seven county board members, the current nine city board members, and seven new members. The last meeting was routine with one exception. The board took up the question on everyone's mind (or at least everyone in this room): Would David Pickler continue as chairman of the new board?

The short answer is yes. Board members decided against taking a vote to elect Pickler and the vice-chairman to new terms and instead passed a motion to extend their terms, which will have same effect until the 23-member gets around to the issue. Pickler himself said "it might not be the most appropriate thing" to do it by the election method. The consent decree and the wording of Judge Mays indicates that he is correct. Mays wrote that "the 23-member board shall elect its own officers." The board serves until September 2013 when it will shrink to seven members, which the Shelby County Commission can increase to not more than 13 members.

Pickler is a member of the transition team as is Martavius Jones, chairman of the now dissolved Memphis school board.

Three hours after the county school board closed the books the transition team opened theirs. Members heard presentations by county superintendent John Aitken and Memphis deputy superintendent Dr. Irving Hamer. Short as they were, the presentations highlighted the differences between the two systems — the county proud of its academic record and racial diversity and 91 percent graduation rate, and the city proud of its improving graduation rate (71 percent), new grants to improve teaching, and 2000 students who scored 19 or higher on the ACT test although the average in the city is 16.5.

Former Memphis school board member Barbara Prescott will be chairman. Pickler said he will not be surprised if the transition team meets every week for the next several months.

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