During a City Council executive session last week, council member Wanda Halbert asked Memphis mayor Willie Herenton to look into ways to make the city school system more efficient. At the time, given that the mayor has no direct authority over the city schools, it seemed an odd request.
Now it seems the mayor, who met with individual school board members as early as February, was already giving it some thought.
As everyone and their mother knows by now, last week Herenton announced his resignation — effective July 31st — and has said he is interested in becoming superintendent of Memphis City Schools.
"I, like you, have some fairly significant concerns about the school system," Herenton told Halbert.
But two days before he announced he was resigning, he dropped another bombshell: He wants to close five libraries and four community centers. Herenton said the closures would save the city $1.5 million to $2 million.
"If this council doesn't have the will to make some hard choices, you are going to face some hefty property tax increases," Herenton said.
Saying he was following recommendations from a 2007 efficiency study, the mayor proposed closing Highland, Cossitt, Poplar-White Station, Levi, and Gaston Park libraries and Greenlaw, Bethel Labelle, Simon/Boyd-Magnolia, and Hamilton community centers, all as of July 1st. He also said no city employees would be laid off as a result of the closures.
"I went to Cossitt Library downtown. I was embarrassed," Herenton told the council. "We had a culture of excellence centered around the Central Library, but in some of the other libraries, there was neglect, major maintenance issues, and major security issues."
Last December, the mayor did not reappoint longtime library head Judith Drescher. Instead, he appointed former Public Services and Neighborhoods director Keenon McCloy to the library's top post, setting off speculation that the mayor was going to make changes to the library system.
After speaking out against those who accused him of cronyism, the mayor said the library system has already become more efficient under McCloy.
"Why did we change leadership? We have a good library system," he said, "but it can be better. It's not as efficient as I think it can get."
He also took a shot at the former library administration, saying it had no regard for diversity. "They all looked alike. I don't have to tell you how they looked," he said. "The diversity they had was fragmented: certain people at the top, certain people at the bottom. That's not how we run a city."
The mayor said the administration would look at adaptive re-use for the facilities being closed.
"When I come back to you with recommendations on repositioning assets, I'm going to talk to you about the highest and best use of real estate," Herenton told the council.
I'm not against efficiency, but I wonder if closing libraries and community centers is the best idea. The city's operating budget is about half a billion dollars a year. By comparison, the efficiency study's more efficient recommendation said the city could save roughly $16 million by eliminating more than 230 firefighting positions.
Saving $2 million by closing libraries and community centers at a time when the community is in the midst of a youth violence crisis? I'm not sure it's worth it.
None of this is a done deal, not the library closures nor Herenton's new job (although, in what could be called a heck of an efficient exit strategy, Herenton has said he will stay mayor if he doesn't get the superintendent position).
Even if the administration does not include the libraries and community centers in its initial operating budget for 2009, council members can ask that they be re-instated.
"The administration is going to move forward on this. As far as we're concerned, these [facilities] will be closed," Herenton said.
But closures take political will, and it's unclear if Herenton will have that. Especially now that he's admitted he'd rather be superintendent than mayor. And that he's looking for efficiencies at the school district, too.
Reminding the council that he was no stranger to unpopular closures, Herenton joked that council member Barbara Swearengen Ware "hated my guts" when he closed her alma mater, Douglass High School.
"I think we closed 18 high schools. That was tough," he said. "It took me a long time to get the board to have the courage. I said, 'Look, these schools are inefficient. We're wasting money. We've got to close them.'
"The school board got enough guts. They hung tight. We closed schools," Herenton said. "The school board needs to close some schools now, but there's no political will."
And it seems, at least with Herenton, where there's a
Willie, there's a way.