Interim Memphis City Schools Superintendent Dan Ward’s good-bye lunch was held Friday at Blue Fish restaurant.

When Interim Chief of Staff Thelma Crivens asked the district’s senior staff to pony up for Mr. Ward’s going away party, it was to take place on his last day at the helm, but subsequently, he decided to delay his departure.

It becomes clearer and clearer that it’s time for him to follow through.

Politeness Aside

More and more, there’s no polite way to put it: Put directly, the city district has jumped track, and the selection of this interim superintendent has been the disaster predicted by observers who advocated for someone with better experience and less of a “good old boys” attitude toward management.

There is absolutely no question that Mr. Ward is the kind of person that we’d love to have as a dinner guest or as a friend. Unfortunately, those aren’t two qualifications needed right now to be effective as the head – even the temporary one – of the nation’s 21st largest school district.

There’s always been a unique culture at Memphis City Schools. Despite lagging student academic performance and data spotlighting disturbing trouble signs, the district administration often seems more focused on rewarding friends and relatives, consolidating power, tweaking organizational charts, settling personal grudges and feeding a culture defined too much by race and patronage.

Agent For Same

Given the chance to act as an agent for change, the interim superintendent has succeeded in only making things worse, chiefly out of a failure to understand that the district today is not the one that he left so long ago.

It’s all come at the most inopportune time for Memphis City Schools, because it erodes the confidence in Memphis City Schools that is needed to find receptive allies in city and county governments. More to the point, the turmoil and lack of credibility fuel City Council’s growing certainty that its $93 million funding for Memphis City Schools will be slashed this year.

All this said, in the midst of the current turmoil, we do of course need to keep our collective balance. There are inspiring stories of success at Memphis City Schools – teachers devoting their lives to their students’ success in life; principals driven by a singular focus on student learning; and students who, despite obstacles that most of us can only imagine, achieve and succeed in miraculous ways.

The Story Line

In other words, Memphis City Schools does not lack for these kinds of stories, but rarely do they hit the media’s radar, because they are obscured by continuing controversies at the mother ship at 2597 Avery Avenue.

There are federal and state grand jury investigations. There are questionable appointments made by interim management. There was lack of decisive action in the wake of the Mitchell High School rape dance controversy and the disastrous appearance by Mr. Ward on Bill O’Reilly’s national cable program. There was the reappointment of a coach at Ridgeway Middle School who had been removed from Hamilton High School for physical abuse of his players. There was creation of a new department that opened up jobs for the favored few. There was the principal’s outing of gay students at Hollis Price Middle School. There were the missing files (then found) in criminal investigations. There was the embarrassing nutrition services debacle that Mr. Ward called a “glitch.”

And as one of our grandmothers used to say, “And that’s just what we know about.” These are but the most well-known symptoms of a management structure that cries out for serious and permanent reform and a culture in need of overhaul.

Tough Jobs

While all of us should feel sympathy for the people who fill the toughest elected offices in Memphis – school board members – even their harshest critics should empathize with their constant buffeting from management controversies over which they have little or no control.

That was the case again Friday, when, just hours before his noon festivities, Mr. Ward asked for the resignation of executive director of capital planning and transportation Louise Mercuro. Curiously, according to an HR official, it was only a few months ago that he greatly expanded her responsibilities and gave her an evaluation that cited no serious shortcomings.

In the wake of the demanded resignation, school board members were again dismayed by a decision that they were being called on to explain or defend. Many of them didn’t even try, exhibiting frustration that a major personnel decision like this one was made by someone who has about four weeks left in his job.

Again And Again

The flare-up, according to a senior manager, resulted from a difference of opinion – and fact – between Ms. Mercuro and the head of facilities maintenance. In the words of this African-American staffer, “An African-American woman isn’t going to win when she is pitted against an African-American man (head of maintenance) and that goes double for a white woman (Ms. Mercuro).”

One board member even suggested that it was all the result of a “set-up.” The fact that these explanations were even given says volumes about the district these days. Whatever the cause, the effect was to once again throw school operations into question and to hold up the district to embarrassing questions about its standards.

Ms. Mercuro was known by reporters and FBI investigators as a source of accurate information and reliable data, and the latter in particular took careful note of her ordered resignation in the midst of an investigation in which they relied on her for subpoenaed material. In addition, one local researcher said that she “gave the district its first real planning office,” and that previously, the district made decisions about school attendance zones, construction budgets and student assignments using data that was years out of date.

Crisis Communicating

Following his decision, Mr. Ward declined comment, and school board members report that his email to them gave no reason for his action. It’s hard to disagree with School Commissioner Kenneth Whalum that the public deserves to know precisely what’s going on.

All in all, it’s no wonder that the district’s communications guru is taking this opportunity to escape to points west and return to a job at Warner Brothers Entertainment. If the school board is the toughest elected office in Memphis, surely communications director for Memphis City Schools is the hardest appointed job. In two years as the district’s primary spokesperson, she’s got enough material to pitch a television series when she returns to the friendlier confines of the dog-eat-dog entertainment business.

Meanwhile, the folks who hold the hardest elected office in this city should consider an entirely new communications strategy. We think the school board should declare a crisis at Memphis City Schools and implore every Memphian to join them in turning things around.

Not only would this get them off defense, where they are too often called on to defend things that are indefensible and explain things that are inexplicable, but it sends the message that they are determined to be on the front lines, fighting for the district’s mission statement to be more than mere verbiage: Memphis City Schools will be an internationally competitive urban school system that produces well-rounded, high achieving students.