It is a perfect storm at Memphis City Schools, and that’s not necessarily all bad.
There’s investigations, scandals, academic crisis, fumbling management and general lack of direction. Despite some predictions to the contrary, it could actually attract a reformer, one who understands how he can leverage the perfect storm to create a more receptive attitude toward ambitious change. That’s because usually only in the midst of absolute crisis is a bureaucracy like the city district willing to accept the kind of overhaul that is fundamentally needed for progress.
In this way, Memphis City Council’s vote didn’t just succeed in reducing taxes. It created the requisite crisis by giving energy to the gathering storm that could blow in a new day for Memphis City Schools. There’s nothing like the challenge of reducing a budget $72 million to give a new superintendent the freedom to make expansive changes.
The smart money at Memphis City Schools says that Kriner Cash, chief of accountability and systemwide performance for Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools, will be offered the job as next superintendent of Memphis City Schools, effectively thwarting Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s plan to stake his claim to the job.
This is no intended criticism of the other candidate, Nicholas Gledich, chief operations officer for Orange County (Florida) Public Schools, who, along with Mr. Cash, did an admirable job of answering questions from the public last week, but more to the point, did a convincing job of showing that they are courageous enough to take the helm of Memphis City Schools despite a litany of things that should scare them off.
While Mr. Gledich did a fine job in his star turn, Mr. Cash seemed to have more of the persona of an urban superintendent, someone who could inspire confidence in his agenda for change and someone who would be a no-nonsense leader willing to make the tough calls that are needed to turn around our district.
While the Democratic Party toys with its dream team, perhaps, it’s not too far-fetched that our school board pursue their own – a Cash-Gledich dream team for Memphis City Schools. The school commissioners have previously expressed concern about the need for a succession plan to prevent the district from running into a ditch as it did after the resignation of Carol Johnson. Mr. Gledich seems to be looking for a place to put down roots, and his presence might just be the succession plan the board is looking for.
More to the point, if the school commissioners want to send a message that something important is happening in their district, this would sure do it, sending powerful ripples throughout the district itself, but also generating national attention.
The candidates came off positive and strong, and they should send Mayor Herenton a thank you card for his help. It was in breaking a rule known to every rookie politician that Mayor Herenton set the stage for their command performances.
The rule is this: you never ever lower expectations for your competition.
When Mayor Herenton called the men “third rate” candidates, he so lowered expectations that when both men could actually speak in complete sentences, it seemed pretty impressive. When they discussed their approaches to urban education in a thoughtful and well-reasoned way, they could have passed for members of the Mensa Club.
In truth, even without Mayor Herenton’s help, both acquitted themselves in the interviews and in the process, they essentially marginalized the mayor from the entire debate. Most of all, both Mr. Cash and Mr. Gledich seemed to possess a more up-to-date understanding of urban schools than the mayor who had so tactlessly criticized them.
It’s worth remembering that neither of them would ever have had this time in the limelight if the Memphis City School commissioners had not stood their ground in the face of City Hall pressures and support for a Herenton superintendent by some in the business community.
It was only a short time ago that the school board didn’t seem convinced of the value of a national search – and there were concerns by us that it would eventually look inside the district for a new leader – but once board members decided on the national search, they did not break, much less bend, in their resolve.
Their task now is to give the new superintendent the power to act as a much-needed agent for change and the power to execute a bold reform agenda that can transform operations and academics from top to bottom. Chalk it up to a temporary bout of Pollyannaism, but we think there’s even the possibility that this could actually be the year when the city district turned itself around and set off in a dramatic new direction.
Mr. Cash promised as much, and while it would be easy to dismiss his pledge as interview excess, any one who’s earned the endorsement from Miami superintendent and reformer Rudy Crew would seem to have what it takes to get it done.
In The Moment
That said, when we optimistically interpret the potential of this particular moment in Memphis City Schools, it’s not just because a new superintendent is waiting in the wings.
After all, we all had similar high expectations of former superintendent Carol Johnson, and in hindsight, it seems clear that the reality of the district had only a passing acquaintance with the public relations of the district during her administration. If our gullibility now approaches buyer’s remorse, consider it a symptom of how desperate Memphians are for improvements in the city schools and how equally desperate we are for real leadership in our superintendent.
As we said, there’s more now than a new superintendent to inspire hope once again. In addition, a majority of the school board do in fact seem determined to open a new era for Memphis City Schools. That’s why they are also bringing in the impressive Warren Simmons of the Annenberg Institute of School Reform at Brown University (at the recommendation of Partners In Public Education [PIPE], according to board members) to conduct a Transition Review that will assess where the district has been and where it is now so that the new superintendent will have a factual foundation for where it is going.
Hope Against Hope
Finally, the board has been accepted into the Reform Governance in Action program of Center for the Reform of School Systems headed by Don McAdams and whose Broad Foundation program is a long-term training and consulting program aimed at improving the effectiveness of urban school boards. In particular, the program focuses on accountability and transparency, two areas that the school board want to emphasize.
We’ll know about a year from now whether all of this is simply a fanciful chimera, or whether something new was in fact set loose that can fundamentally change the district now in crisis. The school board seems at least for now committed to this spirit of reform, and there are now 72 million reasons why it should stay the course.