Perhaps, the tepid pool of candidates for superintendent of Memphis City Schools is a result of the “Herenton Factor.”

Surely, there’s no question that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s highly publicized on-again, off-again pursuit of the superintendent’s job and his assertive agenda for reform at the district couldn’t be considered as helpful in scaring up the best nationally qualified candidates.

The message from Mayor Herenton is unmistakable. Even if he’s not a candidate for superintendent or drafted by the board of commissioners, he intends to be a force in decisions at Memphis City Schools.

Warning Shot

In answer to a question following his presentation about schools at Memphis City Council yesterday, he fired this warning shot: “If you go into a city as new superintendent and don’t have the support of the mayor and city leadership, you are doomed for failure.”

It sounded clear to us that he’s sending the message to the school board that he wants a role in the selection of the next superintendent. That’s not an unreasonable request.

In fact, in Nashville, where the school district is in the midst of its own search for a superintendent, the newly elected mayor has been involved in selecting the search firm and expects to be part of the selection process.

High Stakes

With $93 million in city funding at risk, it would seem pretty logical that city government should be part of the process here as well. Of course, it’s equally obvious to us that some grassroots leaders should also be included, but so far at least, we get the impression from the board that it’s not planning to allow the community to be directly engaged in the most appointment that’s ever made in this city.

While Mayor Herenton recently asked the City Council to refrain from cutting city funding for schools, at least for this year, it seemed obvious that if Memphis City Schools wants the money, it’s going to have to address some priorities from the mayor and City Council.

It’s about time. For decades, city government has been shipping its annual check without holding the district accountable for hitting some measurable goals. In this regard, we expect that some of the agenda items in Mayor Herenton’s presentation yesterday might just find their way into a contract between City of Memphis and Memphis City Schools.

Phase Two

As for the candidates submitted by the search firm, we suggest that the board of commissioners add a second phase to the process.

The search firm says that we now have the list of the five best candidates who applied for the job of superintendent. Now, let’s get a list of the very best candidates in the entire country who didn’t apply.

It’s what we call the Calipari theory – identify the best talent and go get them.

Paying Up

Then again, that’s what the University of Memphis did to lure Coach Cal here in the first place. And if we can afford to pay millions in salary to him to teach and coach about a dozen students, surely we can come up with whatever it costs to bring a superintendent here with national credentials to teach 113,000 students.

We suspect that the business and philanthropic leadership in this city would welcome the chance to raise the money to bring in an impact player for Memphis City Schools. The hole is too deep and the need too great to bring in someone who cannot have that kind of instant influence on the district.

The school board has already said that it’s willing to pay $260,000 for the next superintendent. What level of talent could we get if we were willing to pay twice that amount?

A Small Price To Pay

If we can spend more than $9,000 each year in per pupil expenditures, surely we can pay about $4 a year per pupil to get the kind of superintendent that we really need.

And if we pay that person this level of incentive to come to Memphis, we predict that our district will become more than just a springboard to the next superintendent’s job.

As the board of commissioners proceeds with this process, we hope its members won’t be hypnotized with the data that is regularly cherry picked by the administrative staff and delivered up with great self-satisfaction.

Great City Schools

The latest example was the “Beating The Odds” report by the Council of Great City Schools that lauded Memphis for its improvement on state tests over the past four years, because our district’s rate of increase surpassed the rate of the state.

Of course, unmentioned was the fact that the state tests have been dumbed down to the level that they are essentially irrelevant in determining students’ proficiency. Also, unmentioned was the simple mathematical fact – if your base number is low, any improvement sounds impressive. (After all, if I only make $1 a year and increase it to $2, I’ve increased my salary 100%. It sounds impressive, but left unsaid is I’m still poor.)

But more to the point, the Council of Great City Schools is a membership organization and Memphis City Schools gets what it pays for with these reports.

Valentine’s Day

The organization’s executive director even took the opportunity to send a Valentine to former Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson, crediting her reforms with the “terrific gains” by the district in the past five years.

Dr. Johnson just happens to be secretary/treasurer for Council of Great City Schools and a member of the organization’s executive committee.