Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash and his educational émigrés are coming face-to-face with a fundamental reality of Memphis City Schools – our urban school system has operating systems that are anything but urban.

As a result, it has been difficult to have a high comfort level with almost any information it has produced, from enrollment numbers to data about teacher hiring.

As Superintendent Cash says, this is caused by problem employees that represent about 2% of the total workforce. We hope he’s right, but it’s hard to comprehend that 320 people out of 16,000 employees are responsible for a culture that traditionally chokes to death innovations of superintendents and waits them out.

Challenging Times

That’s not to say that Superintendent Cash and his right hand man, Irving Hamer, don’t seem deadly serious about their intentions – much-needed, by the way – to shake the existing culture down to its foundations, and the 658,028 Memphians who are not MCS employees should be cheering them on.

Superintendent Cash also suggests that the student performance problems of Memphis City Schools are largely caused by 10% of the students, and again, we hope he’s right, although he’s spotlighted the fact that 30% of students are over age for their grades.

All in all, it’s the portrait of a daunting educational challenge, and it’s hard to think of a priority that’s more important to Memphis than solving them, because our low educational attainment rate is a persistent drag on our competitiveness.

It’s Talent, Stupid

In this way, Superintendent Cash’s responsibility is more than developing educational strategies. More to the point, he’s ultimately charged with developing our city’s primary talent strategies, and when you strip it all away, the single most important factor affecting Memphis’ future is talent.

Although Memphis City Schools officials are still smarting from what they felt was an ambush at Tuesday’s Memphis City Council meeting, that appearance was a stark example of how the newfound emphasis on accuracy can also result in political implosion.

Superintendent Cash’s statement that the student enrollment of Memphis City Schools is 103,000 caused City Council members’ jaws to drop, but it also caused some eyebrows to arch 210 miles away in state government, because of the suspicion that state funding has been based for several years on inflated enrollment numbers. (Meanwhile, the Memphis City Schools website alternately gives the enrollment at 119,000 and about 110,000, depending on which page you’re reading.)

Candor And Caveat

One caveat: the enrollment given by Mr. Cash was the district’s so-called 20-day number, and typically, the 40-day enrollment number is larger, but it certainly won’t reach the 2007 reported enrollment of 110,753. As one state official pointed out, only a couple of years ago, Memphis City Schools reported 117,740 students.

“Maybe the student population has dropped almost 15% in three years,” he said. “Maybe it has. It just doesn’t feel right.”

Right or not, there was little benefit to Memphis City Schools from Superintendent Cash’s candor about the enrollment, but city school officials felt that it underscored how serious he is about dealing with “real numbers” and “honest accountability.”

Political Neutralizer

More to the point, his admission to City Council members that Memphis City Schools has been using inaccurate numbers in the past quickly changed the political calculus in the Council’s $66 million cut in school funding. After all, at the 2007 per pupil expenditure level of $9,254, that means that the district needs about $93 million less because of the drop in the number of pupils.

At the risk of saying we told you so, we wrote several weeks ago that between 2003 and 2007, according to Tennessee Department of Education officials, the enrollment of Memphis City Schools fell 11 percent; however, its budget grew 19 percent. Apparently, the gap was even wider.

All of this prompted a headline in The Commercial Appeal that seemed likely to defuse the political pressure on City Council members in the wake of its funding cuts. After months of dealing with angry emails and hostile phone calls, City Council could not have paid for a more powerful headline: “Memphis City Schools officials say fund cuts not a disaster.”

A Number Here, A Number There

Despite previous Memphis City Schools’ statements that 71 teachers and more than 100 administrators were laid off as a result of the city funding cut, Memphis City Schools officials conceded that the cut had not caused layoffs and the district’s budget actually increased from $931 million to $947.8 million.

Councilman Shea Flinn spoke for his colleagues – and most of Memphis – when he said: “Every time you come here, we get new data. We just don’t know what data to believe.” Doubtlessly, there are days when Superintendent Cash could likely agree with him, because clearly, no one has more experience in this phenomenon in recent months than him.

As the joke goes, if you ask six school administrators for enrollment numbers, you’ll get eight different answers. But the statistics given to Memphis City Council this week effectively blew away any remaining notion that Council action was detrimental to the students in our school district when they cut the city’s funding.

Apparently, finally, Superintendent Cash has announced the definitive enrollment number, and for a burst of candor that’s uncharacteristic for Memphis City Schools, maybe in its own way, that’s also a major assault on changing the district’s culture.