Can Tuesday get here soon enough?
The dawning of the Kriner Cash era at Memphis City Schools would be reason enough for hopeful thinking, but with the current disarray and chaos at Memphis City Schools, expectations are so low that he has the opportunity to be a miracle worker.
If you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, that goes double for the new superintendent. He’s in the perfect storm, and the problem at the district is there’s a tendency to deny that the wind is even blowing.
Eyes On The Prize
Because of it, Superintendent Cash’s immediate problem is the same that confronted former Superintendent Carol Johnson when she arrived. Who should you trust? In her case, it resulted in her assembling the so-called Minneapolis Mafia that ultimately kept too much of a strangle hold on decision-making, and too often was ham-handed in its handling of internal communications while keeping too much information from her. The Mafia often conveyed a lack of trust in all things Memphis and rarely did anything to inspire entrepreneurial actions.
It’s clear now in hindsight that the Johnson Era was as much an exercise in wishful thinking as anything, and we admit our own culpability in that delusion. In the end, we all wanted so hard to believe that she was making the fundamental improvements that could turn around the district that we became willing suspects for civic hypnotism.
This time around, we are clear-eyed, almost fatalistically so, but it is in this environment that Superintendent Cash will find almost anyone in this city ready and willing to help if he can promise the kind of courage and candor that can transform the culture that strangles innovation, especially from outsiders. When we say outsiders, at Memphis City Schools, they don’t have to stray so far as to come from Miami. It includes almost anyone here who expresses an opinion that threatens the conventional wisdom or the status quo or anything that threatens the patronage and nepotism that lies behind too many decisions.
Breathing New Air
So far, Superintendent Cash seems a breath of fresh air, and if he can turn his rhetoric about data-driven decision-making, accountability and transparency into real policies and programs, he will have done something long considered impossible in our district.
Sometimes, here, it almost feels that data are the enemy. Meanwhile, districts like the Hamilton County (Chattanooga) School District demonstrate how data can be used to “inform instruction, enhance leadership, and motivate students to higher levels of achievement,” according to the local education fund there.
In a partnership with the district itself, the Public Education Foundation of Chattanooga has determined the measurements that matter and the data that drives change. Because of it, there’s an entirely new discussion taking place – about the connection between data and improved instruction – and it’s changing the existing culture of the district. The evidence came when teachers and principals changed their attitude toward data, and it was complemented by the creation of a nonjudgmental environment where they could debate what the numbers meant and use them to provoke new ideas and new thinking.
Most impressive of all is that the new attitude toward data resulted from a partnership between the school district and the city local education fund, and board members here say they have a new willingness to engage in these kinds of collaborations.
We can already hear people saying, “Memphis isn’t Chattanooga,” but there is much we can learn Chattanooga, where the district is trying innovations of all kinds and showing the results that come from it. The district and the local education fund report there that the achievement gaps are closing, the dropout rate is down, more students are graduating (and without the apples to oranges comparisons that are repeated proudly here) and more are going to college.
It all started with data. If Superintendent Cash is a man of his word, in the coming months, this entire city and the school board itself will learn some startling things about our district. We’ve written in the past about the way that some information and data has been regularly kept from board members, and it is in opening up the free flow of data and the honest interpretation of them that he can show immediately that a new day is dawning at Memphis City Schools.
First Things First
But it appears these days that before Mr. Cash can execute his vision for the district, he first must return order to its operations. It’s hard to think of a time when the district was in more turmoil than today. There’s self-dealing in some salary increases, apparently without interim superintendent Dan Ward’s knowledge, and even a reported attempt to back date them to avoid his discovery. Then there are reports that access to the HR system has been pared back to prevent oversight, and in light of the memo generated by Mr. Ward that warned of job cuts, the teachers’ grapevine is filled with stories of administrative waste, such as the top manager who receives a monthly car allowance but drives a district vehicle at the same time.
Suffice it to say that the district needs nothing right now so much as a grown-up in charge. And, as we’ve learned from the disastrous interim superintendency of Mr. Ward, that isn’t something that just comes with age. In a series of bad decisions, he not only drove the district into the ditch but kept his foot on the accelerator.
Back when he was appointed, we feared that he would be a do nothing interim appointee. We had advocated the appointment of someone who had the experience and the courage to make sure that the district didn’t lose momentum. What we didn’t count on was the damage that an interim superintendent could actually cause if that person was not only a product of the old school thinking, but wed to it.
Take The Door Marked Exit
Even as he headed toward the exit, he continued to do things like issue the baneful memo about job cuts and to announce a 10 percent across-the-board cut in all department budgets. It was yet one more example of the “stuck in the past” thinking that embodied his tenure.
There’s nothing in the public sector more irritating than the “lazy man’s budgeting.” Across-the-board cuts are motivated more by politics than budget management. It’s a method used by bureaucrats as an attempt to turn up the heat on elected officials with whom they disagree (in this case, City Council’s overdue action to reduce Memphian’s double taxation for schools).
The classic example is the predictable response by the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department to any contemplated cuts. With so many programs to choose from, the Department picked rat control and mosquito spraying, because these were the two areas that would get the public up in arms the quickest.
Restoring The Missing Credibility
Back to the school district, the 10 percent across-the-board cuts are one of the most ill-conceived tactics used in the public sector. Surely, some programs and services have higher priority than everything else, and if district officials were doing their jobs, they would have a list of priorities so any budget cuts would reflect the overall priorities of services to the district.
But there’s another reason that across-the-board cuts are the lazy man’s approach to budgeting. It punishes those department heads who submit “honest” budgets, and rewards those who pad their budgets for occasions just like this. And believe it or not, in public bureaucracies, it is generally no secret about who falls into each category. Equally important, the “spread the pain” approach begun by Mr. Ward does nothing to restore the credibility of Memphis City Schools at the very time that it’s needed as the foundation for the future. We hope that Mr. Cash will reverse Mr. Ward’s across-the-board edict and get his staff to work on the real job of budgeting.
We also hope that Mr. Cash will meet with Louise Mercuro, former executive director of capital planning and transportation, until the interim superintendent, in what has been called by insiders a fit of pique, fired her summarily on the basis of erroneous information. We think Mr. Cash should meet with her to learn about her plans to make schools once again centers for community and to encourage walkable school districts. These too should be centerpieces of his plans for the future.
In the end, it should be no secret that Mr. Cash’s first order of business is to restore the credibility of the district. His second order of business is to find some short-term wins that send the unmistakable message that he’s a serious agent for change.
His third order of business is to prove to Memphians that serious school reform is gritty, long-term work. There are no magic bullets. There are no simple answers. There is no alchemy to school improvement. There is only the alchemy of systemic, long-term, grind-it-out work.
These are tough challenges, but we predict that Mr. Cash will be surprised by the outpouring of support that he will receive for trying. We’re past the time for clever public relations and squarely in the time for transformative public policy. We can only hope that he’s the vehicle to that better future.