In light of the renewed call by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton for Memphis City Schools to become part of city government with the mayor appointing the superintendent and board as well as a proposal for a Joint Board of Control to handle certain operations of city and county school systems, we reprise this post from December 17, 2007 on these subjects:

There are better ways to run urban school districts than by elected school boards.

That’s an opinion that’s gaining traction in many large U.S. cities and given new energy by the success of buoyant, youthful Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty in taking over his city’s troubled school district.

This year’s takeover of school operations by Mayor Fenty bookends a 15-year mayoral takeover movement that began in 1992 in Boston, and between them are five other successful changes in school governance — Chicago (1995), Cleveland (1998), Detroit (1999), Philadelphia (2001), and New York (2002).

When In Doubt, Reorganize

The interest in this different way of operating school districts surfaced here a month ago when Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton said that it’s hard to imagine a better time to change the operational structure of Memphis City Schools. Considering the litany of controversies at the city district in recent months, it’s pretty hard to argue with him.

After all, if Albuquerque, Los Angeles and Richmond can move this topic to the top of their list of priorities, it sure seems that Memphis can, too. Here, there’s the ongoing federal investigation, the nutrition services scandal, questions about a no-bid transportation contract, concerns about the contract for temp workers and the rumblings inside the district headquarters show no signs of stopping.

If there’s any indictment of the chaotic culture of the Memphis City Schools and the district’s persistent inability to improve things, it is the latest organizational restructure – it was the fourth in five years.

Better Controls

While Interim Superintendent Dan Ward’s recent reorganization (complete with clumsy press release references to his military experience 25 years ago) effectively dismantled the centralized organization that evolved during the Carol Johnson era, the truth is that no org chart has proven to be the antidote to the problems that seem inherent in the lumbering, $1 billion a year bureaucracy.

In fact, the failure to resolve these problems over the years is probably the strongest evidence in support of mayoral control, because research has shown that a chief benefit from this new governance is the improvement in operational functions. As one study put it, financial and administrative operations of the districts are more effective and healthy under mayoral control, and in districts run by mayors, more people who are non-teachers are hired for key management jobs.

While the greatest benefits of a governance change are on the administrative side of the district, it’s hard to argue that a change in organization couldn’t help the academic side. After all, Memphis City Schools has 100 schools that don’t meet state benchmarks for progress. With state standards toughening in the next 12 months, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that the public relations house of cards about improved student performance won’t come crashing down.

Hitting The Books

Here’s the thing about mayoral control. While research indicates that the single vision creates progress, the real magic is in removal of an elected school board. It’s not that board members are bad people or not serious about their duties. It’s just that the presence of an elected board politicizes a district already difficult enough to operate. It’s hard to remain loyal to balkanized districts of constituents and manage to develop an overall vision for the district.

About now, Mayor Wharton is likely poring over lawbooks from the county attorney’s office to find ways to bring a new governance structure to Memphis City Schools. So far, school board commissioners have concentrated their attention on the governor’s powers under No Child Left Behind and the opportunities for takeover of the city district by state government.

While state law endows the governor with considerable powers, he’s shown little appetite for bold action to this point despite the crisis in both Memphis and Nashville districts; however, his support for mayoral takeover could be a key to getting it done.

Unearthed Opportunity

Word filtering out of the county building is that Mayor Wharton has been investigating legal and political options for months and doing much of the research himself. It’s hard to imagine that one major point of investigation isn’t the Joint Board of Control, a mechanism that he unearthed in 2004 in the midst of his campaign to clamp down on the devastating impact that the capital costs of schools were having on the county budget.

In a July 14, 2004, letter to Patrice Robinson, then president of the Memphis Board of Commissioners, Mayor Wharton wrote: “After much research, I believe establishment of a Joint Board of Control is a viable tool that should be considered as we move forward with this process.” He could say the same now about mayoral control.

In media coverage in 2004, he compared his approach as similar to a “joint venture in the private sector” and said school officials had pledged to keep an open mind on the use of the joint board. While capital funding pressures at the time drove the discussion, the description of the Joint Board in Mayor Wharton’s letter suggests that it has the potential to be the vehicle for mayoral takeover.

Pyramid Scheme

The 1957 state law about Joint Board of Control says that city and county school districts can enter into contracts which provide for joint operation of a school or certain services with an eye to increased efficiency. The law is bolstered by the Memphis city charter which allows contracts between the two school districts.

Emulating the kind of legal structures set up for some of local government’s most complicated projects – The Pyramid and FedEx Forum – a possible course of action could be for Memphis City Schools to sign a far-reaching contract with Shelby County Schools for a Joint Board of Control, and the Joint Board of Control in turns contracts with Memphis city government to run the city school district. (It’s not unlike the city and county governments contracting with the Public Building Authority to construct an arena, and the Authority then subcontracts with a third party to build it.)

According to a 2003 opinion issued by Tennessee Attorney General Paul G. Summers, there’s no limit to the powers and control that the joint board could possess, and although the change in the governance of Memphis City Schools would require the approval of its board of commissioners, it’s still possible that it could be quicker than other options. The beauty of the Joint Board of Control is that it doesn’t require any additional legislative action, because the law already exists.

The Catch

Here’s Catch-22: Success will eventually depend on the better angels in board members’ nature, because its members’ support are needed to give Memphis the chance to see if this dramatic change in governance can take place and produce the positive results seen in other cities.

In an authoritative study about the impact of mayoral takeover, the following conclusions were reached:

* In 80 percent of the districts studied, the elementary schools improved their test scores.

* Every district studied showed improved performance by high school students.

* The most significant improvements in performance are seen in the lowest-performing schools.

* More accountability in the system and responsibility held by a single city leader increases public confidence in strategies to turn around the schools.

Chance For Success

In addition, Dr. Ken Wong of Brown University, in a must-read, recent report, “The Education Mayor,” conducted a comparison of 14 mayor-led districts to 90 similar districts run by independent schools boards and concluded that mayoral control results in one-third of a year in extra learning by the average student.

In the end, pursuit of a Joint Board of Control rests on two premises – one, that Memphis City School board will do what is best for the children in its classrooms, and two, that a unified front of Governor Phil Bredesen, Mayor Wharton and Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton can wield the political influence to make a Joint Board of Control happen.

It’s clear that a unified political front stands the best chance of coming up with a combination of carrots and sticks that convinces school board commissioners to give a new governance structure an opportunity. With public confidence in the school district bottoming out and with more of the same promising the same disturbing results, there’s little doubt that the public is willing to try something different.