Being a Memphian is a bit like being part of a dysfunctional family.
We get so used to things as they are that we think every other family is just like ours. We start to think that our family really is normal…until we start explaining things to someone from outside the family.
We think of this analogy as we are experiencing a pretty routine day in Memphis – Mayor Willie W. Herenton is lobbing his latest grenade – until we get a call from a friend in state government in Nashville, who asks a pretty simple question: “What the hell is going on down there?”
As we try to explain what Mayor Herenton is doing this time and why his actions seem rational from behind his desk in City Hall, we realize how ridiculous it all sounds. We have become so comfortable in our dysfunction that only when we hear ourselves trying to explain it out loud do we realize how ridiculous this all is.
Today, Mayor Herenton surfaced in one of his regular guerilla raids on civic tranquility, this time proposing the elimination of the elected school board and making Memphis City Schools part of city government. Here’s the thing: we agree with him in a preference for a mayor-led district with an appointed school board. Research shows convincingly that this governance structure is directly connected to improved student performance.
However, life – and politics – is nothing if not about timing. This discussion about a mayor-led district and a referendum would have been useful subjects for citywide discussion earlier this year when all options should have been on the table, but now, it’s too little too late.
Die Is Cast
Miami school official Kriner Cash will be here in 15 days to take over as the new Memphis City Schools Superintendent. He takes over in the wake of Memphis City Council’s vote to cut the school district’s budget $70 million.
In other words, things are already in motion, and we would all do well – starting with the mayor – to take time out. We need to let Mr. Cash get to Memphis so we can see for ourselves if his encouraging rhetoric about bringing data-driven decision-making, accountability and transparency to Memphis City Schools will be converted into a immediate plan of action.
Meanwhile, every one needs to turn down the rhetoric and let the courts decide the issue of school funding. As we wrote yesterday, it’s nonsensical to think that the Tennessee Department of Education plans to slice away half of our district’s budget, so there’s no need for the hysteria in some quarters. It’s almost as nonsensical as any suggestion that state officials would do anything that would inevitably require them to take over our district, which they see as a third world nation.
As our call from Nashville reminded us, if we have accomplished anything in the past four months in Memphis, it has been to reinforce convincingly the statewide stereotype of our city as one weird place where the political environment is punctuated by sound and fury signifying nothing, at least as measured in the progress of the city. In two words, across Tennessee, Memphis is a laughing stock. While this may be comical to some, it is this reputation that neuters Memphis’ impact in Nashville and inspires a Memphis versus the world attitude in the Legislature that puts our city on the wrong side of too many critical votes.
We hear ourselves explaining that yes, Mayor Herenton wants to have a referendum, but it’s questionable at this point if the referendum would even have any meaning, and it almost sounds like it’s just a beauty contest vote between Mayor Herenton and Memphis City Schools Board of commissioners.
At this point, it just seems to us that it’s more in the public interest to give Mr. Cash a chance to attack the problems of Memphis City Schools. And it can’t come too soon.
Warding Off Inanities
We hear ourselves quoting Interim Superintendent Dan Ward who said today that Memphis City Schools is “the best school system in the United States of America.” We guess that’s why two grand juries are presently investigating district operations and why the district’s student performance is nothing short of a civic disgrace. We’ve seen a lot of “spin” in the public sector, but Mr. Ward’s is the rhetorical equivalent of the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Mr. Ward added that if you know of any “waste and mismanagement and inefficiencies in the school system, just call us…we’d be happy to tackle it. If you don’t know of any, put down the epithets.” Only in Memphis could the facts be considered epithets, and perhaps no one is better suited to be the father of our dysfunctional family right now than Mr. Ward.
Rather than reflexively join in his delusions and try to “spin” statistics and data to put the district in a better light, school board members would do better to engage in some brutal honesty in a candid citywide conversation about what the district needs to do to turn itself around.
We expect that in the coming months, every one at Memphis City Schools will appear astounded by some of the changes that Mr. Cash says are needed and revelations made by their new superintendent as he reviews operations and improves the management structure.
When Mr. Cash takes up the duties as superintendent July 1, there are many things that he intends to do immediately to get a sense of where the district is now and what needs to be changed for it to get to where it needs to be. We can only hope that one of the things that he does is to request a list of all promotions and salary increases that have been made in the past 12 months. (He might also want a list of anyone fired in the past 12 months.)
We believe that some of the inefficiencies requested by Mr. Ward can be found on these lists, as people with connections and with relatives and friends at the top have been promoted and their salaries increased.
The Gift Of Newcomers
Perhaps, the greatest gift that Mr. Cash brings to Memphis isn’t just his skills as a Rudy Crew adherent in Miami, but the fresh eyes that are needed to see Memphis City Schools as it is, rather than the way it looks through the rose-colored glasses worn by too many appointed and elected officials there.
In one of his diatribes several months ago, Mayor Herenton derided the value of a national search for superintendent – and by extension, for any number of important Memphis jobs. He said that Memphis is guilty of bringing in outsiders who really don’t understand our city and who don’t know what to do.
He must have been talking about another Memphis, because for years, Memphis has had a troubling tendency to conduct alleged national searches that end up hiring someone here who’s already on the inside of things. It is this lack of new blood, fresh ideas and new thinking that feeds our dysfunctional family, because it is only through the newcomer and the outsider can we see with new eyes what we have really become.
So, for our part, we say, let’s celebrate the coming of Mr. Cash, and let’s hope that it is only the beginning of national searches that really bring national talent to bear on the considerable problems of our city.
Meanwhile, let’s deal with the issues already on the table – school funding by city government, questions about authority, issues about taxing authority and questions about city, county and state governments’ roles. We need to clear the air before we start talking about a November referendum, an amendment to a state law and a new governance structure for Memphis City Schools.
Our dysfunctional family already has enough to argue about. Let’s solve one family crisis before we start another. Only in Memphis would that be seen as progress.