More and more, there’s a growing question about whether the members of the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners are playing Nero to the district’s Rome whose smoke doesn’t even seem to be noticed by them.

Bereft of positions that don’t seem to spring from a political place, the board is creating the perception that it’s incapable of asking the kind of strategic questions that have to be answered if the district is to build momentum for change.

But they better address them, because more and more, the Bredesen Administration signals that it has no such reticence. In fact, lack of confidence in Nashville that Memphis City Schools can solve its problems has reached the point that one key education official said the progress of the Superintendent Carol Johnson era is “smoke and mirrors.”

Defying Expectations

It seems an unusually harsh assessment, but it does suggest the depths of frustration that state officials have reached in their discussions with the superintendent and her key staff about the 17 schools whose lack of progress over several years opens up the prospect for state takeover.

In particular, state officials assessing the governor’s options are dismayed at Memphis City Schools’ inability to produce some basic reports with the kind of data needed for routine management of a school district. One state official went so far as to say that Carroll County (in rural West Tennessee) does a better job of collecting data about its students, capacities, performance and trends.

“You’d never known that you’re in a major urban school district,” said one person during a recent visit to Memphis before delivering the cruelest cut of all: “We can’t imagine how anybody in leadership in Memphis has been making any kind of informed decisions based on the information that we’ve seen.”

Culture Trumps Strategy Every Day

It’s all a little reminiscent of the consultant who only a few years ago found vital personnel records kept on index cards by Memphis City Schools. Despite some technological improvements, HR polices of the district remain needlessly bureaucratic and unimaginative.

The district can’t seem to get even the simple things right. Case in point: teacher orientation sessions last week started three hours after the announced time and based on reports, it was most notable by its basic ineffectiveness.

Worst of all, most of this information – particularly conversations with state officials – are only slowly finding their way to board members whose grumbling aggravation is replacing the lovefest of only a few weeks ago when Dr. Johnson announced her departure for the green pastures of Boston.

Sending A Message

With board attitudes souring and with state officials asking increasingly hostile questions, it’s beginning to look like Dr. Johnson can’t get to Beantown soon enough. Already, the so-called palace guard is beginning to scatter, seemingly accepting the premise that their futures won’t be as part of Memphis City Schools.

As for Governor Bredesen, he’s given the clearest possible marching orders. He’s not interested in political expediency or in conclusions tempered for public consumptions. It’s a message sent unequivocally in a report, as yet uncirculated, shared by the state with the superintendent’s office.

Rather, state officials says he’s got a “take no prisoners” attitude about Memphis City Schools, and as a result, rumors swirl in district offices to the extreme, such as the one this week that the governor will soon swoop in and take over the entire district.

Game Of Chicken

While Governor Bredesen has shown that he’s not too far removed from his days as a hard-nosed businessman willing to make the tough calls, it’s hard to imagine that his Department of Education is doing anything to encourage such a comprehensive approach by him. After all, DOE has played games with state regulations for years to stall the inevitability of Memphis City Schools’ lack of progress with the 17 schools.

That said, this much is clear. DOE won’t make the final call; the governor will.

That’s why state officials are frantically investigating options, including the possibility of assigning the management of the schools to the University of Memphis.

Listen Up

So far, Bredesen representatives suspect that the district believes that the state is just rattling its saber and will never take over the 17 schools. At this point, irritable and frustrated by discussions at Memphis City Schools and by requests for information that never comes, state officials are increasingly sending a message not fully comprehended yet on Avery Street.

To the district’s “you’d never do it” attitude, the state is increasing saying: Just try us. The question is whether anybody’s listening at Memphis City Schools.