Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton reminds me of an absurdist friend who told his wife that he was having an affair, but he wasn’t sure where it was headed, and he might be back to her in the end.

Her response: “What makes you think I want you if she doesn’t?”

It’s a feeling familiar to many of the voters who just a few months ago cast their ballots to put Mayor Herenton back in City Hall. To most of them, it’s time for the mayor to be make up his mind – choose where he wants to be most, and if it’s Memphis City Schools, resign and go after the superintendent’s job.

Chaos Theory

If there’s ever been a disciple of chaos theory, it must be Mayor Herenton. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we’re not as comfortable with the idea that logical decisions can be regularly made in the midst of illogical confusion. The current chaos is such that it almost appears that Mayor Herenton is looking for the public to make a Faustian bargain – wanting him out of City Hall so badly that they pressure the school board to hire him as superintendent of Memphis City Schools.

All in all, his latest foray into political chaos was based on a faulty legal opinion that led him to believe that he could bequeath the mayor’s office to his chief administrative officer Keith McGee. Based on these legal miscalculations, our current mayor thought Mayor McGee would give him a continued voice in City Hall operations, but more to the point, he would protect his loyalists – especially former bodyguards – who would remain undisturbed as their pensions soared, because retirement checks would be based on their higher current salaries.

It was the latest example of the poor personnel decisions that the mayor has a propensity to make. While Mr. McGee is a genuinely fine person, he’s about the last person that City Hall insiders would have targeted as future mayoral material. In an unofficial survey, he was rated at the bottom of the list of city CAO’s for the past 20 years, and on his watch, the city administration has become disjointed on its best days and dysfunctional on its worst.

Hiring Weakness

We mention this because it’s also pertinent in examining Mayor Herenton’s 13 years as superintendent of Memphis City Schools. As superintendent, Mr. Herenton came into those jobs with a competent staff that was responsible for a well-run operation, and he had the wisdom to leave them in place. At Memphis City Schools, those people included Ray Holt who ran business operations with a skill unseen since.

Like his tenure in City Hall, as these people left, the integrity of operations deteriorated along with any dependable connection between vision, policy and operations. In their places, he often selected key staff members who were noticeably unprepared for their critical positions.

The challenge for Mayor Herenton, if selected to be superintendent, is that there is not now a cadre of high-performing senior managers at the district. That’s why right about now, the mayor needs to be looking up Mr. Holt’s phone number.

In addition to the immediate need to recruit and appoint a staff with national credentials to run an urban district, if Mayor Herenton becomes superintendent again, he will find it a brave new world shaped largely by the zest to test culture ushered in by No Child Left Behind, the federal law aimed at bringing higher standards to American schools but now seems to be eroding the educational system it purports to serve.

Back To The Future

If the past is any indication of the future, the once and future superintendent would be expected to act on some of the core beliefs that guided him in the 1980’s:

Decentralized management. He said back then that his philosophy was for a district where decisions were shifted down from the Avery Avenue mother ship into sub-district leaders.

Deregulated school management. He removed regulations and policies handcuffing the leadership of targeted schools in return for greater accountability.

School-based decision-making. When he was elected mayor, he had just begun to implement policies to give more power to principals to run their own schools, free of district interference.

Teacher-focused reform plans. As a Rockefeller Fellow, he studied the programs in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and said the experience contributed to his advocacy for innovative programs that put teachers at the center of learning.

Early student intervention. He called for programs that aimed at improving student readiness and early reading skills.


Many of these were his priorities as he shifted his attention from the district to City Hall, and they would likely be his priorities again. Critics from his days as superintendent complain that he had a “program du jour” approach that made it difficult to measure improvements before something new was announced.

The world of public education has dramatically changed in the 16 years since he left Memphis City Schools, but it’s nothing compared to changes in district politics. Back then, the city’s first African-American superintendent worked for a majority Caucasian, liberal-leaning board that regularly backed away from confrontation and acquiesced to him. Those days are gone forever, and the now predominantly African-American makes racial politics irrelevant.

In the end, however, the greatest threat to his appointment may be his temperament, not his 16-year absence from education. It’s worth remembering that the adjectives used often to describe him as superintendent – arrogant and confrontational – were the same ones used over the past 16 years to describe him as mayor.

The Right Focus

In other words, Memphis City Schools isn’t your father’s district any more, but that said, it ran better under Superintendent Herenton than it has under anyone since. If he was given a grade for those days, it would probably be a B, and right now, that would be an upgrade for the district.

In this regard, Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioner deserves the opportunity to complete the national search that we all urged it to undertake – and it should be a straight up, honest process. In that process, Mayor Herenton deserves the opportunity and whatever time he needs to present the comprehensive plan that he’s been developing for the future of Memphis City Schools.

At the end of the day, only one thing matters: Memphis City Schools is in crisis. The ultimate question to be answered now is who is best equipped to be the agent for change that is so desperately needed. And, nothing about that answer should be preordained.