THE PEOPLE'S CHOICE As he waited for Mayor Willie Herenton to arrive at the final session of the city council's annual retreat earlier this year, Councilman Jack Sammons likened the mayor's leadership style to lobbing a grenade into the room and closing the door.
Usually, the result is a lot of headlines and hard feelings, but the big idea (consolidation, surrender the city charter, appointed school board, sell MLGW, the Formula for Fairness, raise suburban sewer fees, etc.) goes away.
But Sammons thinks Herenton's push for school-system consolidation could be different. Despite a spotty turnout of other invited public officials at Tuesday's Herenton presentation at City Hall, school reform isn't going away.
"For the first time in my career down here, education has become an issue that people want to talk about at cocktail parties," said Sammons, who has been in and out of public office for nearly 20 years. "I hope Mayor Herenton maintains the level of intensity this time."
Others see the same old Herenton.
"He could pick up some allies if he would practice a little bit of diplomacy," said Memphis Board of Education member Michael Hooks Jr., one of several elected officials who found conflicts or other reasons that kept them from attending what was supposed to be an intergovernmental session.
Herenton was in grenade mode at Monday night's school board meeting, delivering a letter via finance director Joseph Lee that warned of a possible $7.2 million cut in school funding. Board member Hubon Sandridge suggested the mayor "has lost his mind." Colleague Lee Brown was "appalled," while Wanda Halbert said she wasn't going to a meeting "with somebody who calls us names on the TV." Even Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson said it was "devastating" to get the letter without so much as a courtesy call from the mayor, his old boss.
Well, too bad. School board members, politicians, suburban mayors, and superintendents are so yesterday. You could almost hear Herenton chuckling that they had proven his point that they're a bunch of petty turf-protectors. The latest Herenton strategy goes straight to "the people," calling for a referendum on abolishing the city school board and merging the system with the county.
To get there, however, he'll need a favorable opinion from the state attorney general and approval from at least one elected body, preferably the city council in Herenton's mind. If he can get over those hurdles, Herenton thinks he can win a referendum. Only city of Memphis residents would get to vote. Turnout would be higher than a school board election because everyone would get excited over the prospect of a property tax cut at the expense of county residents outside the city. The suburbanites can bawl all they want about how bigger isn't better. In the Herenton plan, they're stuck with it. The all-white county school board goes away, and the new nine-member board is stacked 6-3 in favor of the city.
Audacious? Maybe. But Herenton has come a long, long way from 1991 when he was first elected with exactly two prominent white people attorney Richard Fields and liberal minister Harry Moore at his side. Now he has solid white support and more black support than the Ford, Hooks, or Bailey clans.
He beat Dick Hackett. He outlasted Jim Rout. And he can rightly and righteously note that city government doesn't have any scandals. He beat various Fords. He beat professional Herenton nag Pete Sisson. He brought Mike Tyson to town and made it work. He rebuffed minority contractors on the arena and made their protest look foolish. He backed Republican Lamar Alexander over Democrat Bob Clement and stood on his victory platform with him. He made an in-your-face presentation on schools to A C Wharton and others at the New Year's prayer breakfast.
Consolidation won't solve the problems of public education. Two systems aren't wasteful or embarrassing. Half-empty city schools are wasteful. Unaudited bus routes and free-lunch programs are wasteful. Overpriced school buildings are wasteful. School-security directors with gun problems and principals who cheat on standardized tests and daily newspapers that create "legends" like Gerry House and Dr. Lirah Sabir are embarrassing. A unified system won't fix any of that.
There will be political casualties, with or without a referendum. Some of them are former Herenton allies and colleagues. Watson is retiring at the end of the year. His financial assistant, Roland McElrath, is already gone. Two of the most controversial school board members, Chairman Carl Johnson and Sara Lewis, go back decades with Herenton.
In his own office, spokeswoman Gale Jones Carson, chair of the Shelby County Democratic Party, faces a likely challenge to her leadership at the April convention from a Ford-backed candidate, probably state Rep. Lois DeBerry or state Rep. Kathryn Bowers.
"If they can put me out, it's a slap at the mayor," said Carson.
Maybe. But it will take more than a slap to knock down this mayor.