Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton proved again that there’s just no substitute for the city’s biggest megaphone.

In his 45-minute presentation to Memphis City Council today about the state of Memphis City Schools, he repeated his claim that he’s not a candidate for superintendent of the district while all the while insinuating that he deserves the chance.

For an hour this afternoon, it was harder to argue with him, and we don’t say this as much for the substance as for the style of the speech. He was deliberate, calm and passionate in his comments, but what caught our attention was the fact that he has the dual threat of his office and of his personality to make Memphians immediately pay attention to the woeful education of 113,000 of its children.

The Basics

His laundry list of strategies seemed to reflect a “back to basics” approach for Memphis City Schools. We are told that already members of the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners are dismissive of his proposed priorities, saying that they are already doing everything he proposed. However, his most searing criticism was directed at the district’s bloated organizational structure, and there’s no question that the board is in denial about this pressing problem.

It is that organizational structure – whose inefficiency has only been compounded by the questionable decisions of Interim Superintendent Dan Ward – that seems unable to set up an accountable operational system and checks and balances expected of every public entity. More to the point, the school district – like most large bureaucracies – seems intent on suffocating innovations in their cribs and on protecting the status quo.

We’ve railed about the clumsy organizational chart previously, so we won’t do it again here, except to say that currently the superintendent has more people reporting directly to him than either city or county mayors. The organizational chart looks like nothing so much as one of those large Asian jellyfishes with its tentacles hanging down in a gangly maze.

Top Heavy

In this regard, one of Mayor Herenton’s proposals appeared to take a page out of the federal government personnel manual for the transition to a new presidency. The mayor suggested that every person in an administrative position should resign and be required to reapply for their jobs, that is, if they still exist from an overhaul of the “top heavy” management.

Back in late March, we predicted that if Mayor Herenton were named superintendent, he would anchor his proposals in the same core beliefs that he espoused as superintendent 16 years ago, and that was largely the case today. The presentation featured cameo roles for decentralized management, deregulated school management, school-based decision-making, student interventions and teacher-focused reform plans. New additions were school safety, crackdowns on children with behavioral problems and a closer working relationship with MPD.

This time around, Mayor Herenton plugged his philosophy in a three-pronged plan of action – improving teaching and learning, making schools more efficient and making schools safe. So far, he’s largely laid out broad themes, promising to issue a full report of strategies in the near future.

Not Every Child

There was something for everybody in his presentation – plenty to agree with but also plenty to disagree with. In that latter category we placed his call for a return to corporal punishment and his criticisms of former Carol Johnson’s “Every child, every day, college bound” mantra.

While we agree that vocational programs are important and deserve emphasis, it’s awfully hard for us to argue that some students should be labeled as college material while others are not. The potential for a school caste system is too great, and based on what we’ve heard from researchers, the average student today needs the same sets of skills and knowledge by their graduation from high school, whether that student is going to college, going into the workforce or going into a vocational program.

As we wrote a couple of weeks ago, until Memphis increases its percentage of college-educated workers, we are doomed to subsist on low-skill, low-wage jobs that will leave us farther and farther behind as the knowledge economy booms. In the end, getting more students college bound is the only way we win the race for economic growth. Put simply, we don’t win with more vocational school graduates.

High Tech

Another interesting footnote to the presentation was Mayor Herenton’s
call for two technology middle schools, patterned after a school in Philadelphia, but what caught our eye was that while city government reports that it’s made no decisions about the future of the Fairgrounds, Mayor Herenton is proposing to build a high tech middle school there.

The mayor called his proposals “the equivalent of shock therapy for a district that is often out of touch with the times and out of reach from the community,” and judging from the looks on the faces of some of the school board commissioners in the audience, he succeeded.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, it was inescapable that he is receptive to a draft movement for him to be the next superintendent. He said repeatedly that he is not a candidate, but in response to a question from a Council member, he said that the district needed a “Lean on Me” kind of leader who was “man” enough for the job.

Old Joe Clark

Summoning up the image of Joe Clark may have produced some head-nodding in the crowd (except for a few women who whispered if he was being sexist), but it’s worth remembering that the former New Jersey may have been lionized in the movie, but he was also autocratic and tyrannical at times.

A few hours after Mayor Herenton’s presentation, the search firm hired by Memphis City Schools released the names of its five candidates for superintendent. Initial speculation seemed to place Buffalo superintendent James Williams in the front runner spot, but we predict that he won’t be there long.

In his tenure in Buffalo, he has been plagued by controversies that range from allegations of covering up sexual abuse to stealing his board members’ mail to violating state law in the suspension of a high school senior. Prior to his Buffalo position, he worked in Dayton, where he provoked similar flare-ups caused by a penchant for secrecy and charges of improper payments to consulting firms.


As recently as a week ago, some members of the Buffalo City Council contended that he is guilty of mismanagement and inefficiency that are taking a costly financial toll on the district.

Clearly, Mayor Herenton has no intention of applying for the Memphis superintendent’s job, but he should be put on the list of candidates by the search firm anyway. Today, he seemed to have earned that opportunity, and anyway, politically, the school board would be smarter to get him inside the tent than to allow him to use his bully pulpit to preach a new gospel for city schools.

It’s been more than a decade and a half since Mayor Herenton was on everyone’s short list of candidates for urban superintendent’s jobs. In fact, if Ed Koch had beaten David Dinkins for mayor in 1989, the mayor would have been sworn in as superintendent of New York City Schools. More well-known was his selection as Atlanta superintendent before the business community coaxed him into staying home.

The Gamble

The ultimate question right now is whether the times have changed so much in 16 years that Mayor Herenton is out of step with the times, or whether, as he immodestly suggests, the fundamentals have not changed and there’s no one more qualified to straighten out Memphis City Schools.

While it would be the natural inclination of elected officials like the school board of commissioners to push back on his candidacy for a variety of reasons, the final test is about much more than educational experience. What Mayor Herenton can bring to the mix is the political clout, influence and voice – not to mention the chits that he can redeem – that can finally make education at Memphis City Schools the dominant issue for the entire city.

We don’t blame the school board for a natural reluctance. Politically, a Herenton superintendency would immediately overshadow them, and there are lingering questions about whether he has the temperament and the demeanor to work as a partner with the board.

These are legitimate questions, but at least for a few hours today, the city mayor seemed to prove that he deserves the chance.