Thursday, April 3, 2008

Herenton For Superintendent

Baggage and all, the mayor just might be the right person for the job.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 3, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Ask him. Ask Willie Herenton to be superintendent. Then cross your fingers.

Because at this troubled time in this troubled city, he can do more good for more people and do it faster than anyone else.

The superintendent search looks like a charade. Two weeks ago, the consultants from Ray and Associates held a series of meetings to gather community comments on the qualities sought in the next superintendent. Four people showed up at Manassas High School, five at Craigmont High School, and two at White Station High School.

"We would like to have had more people, but everybody had an opportunity," said consultant Al Johnson.

Maybe the fact that the meetings were held during spring break and publicized in the daily newspaper had something to do with it. Ten points off for poor planning.

The Herenton news broke during one of the meetings. A teachable moment if there ever was one. Consultant Carl Davis carried on, like a teacher plowing ahead with an algebra lesson during a fight or a fire drill. Ten more points off.

On Monday, I asked Davis what impact Herenton would have on the search.

"I thought he had resigned," Davis said.

Ten more points off for not being wired into the local news.

So, I asked, if Herenton applies, does that deter other candidates from applying?

"He would be just another candidate," Davis said.

And John Calipari is just another coach. Ten more points off. Turn in your paper.

Now, why Herenton, with all his messy baggage?

For starters, Fred Smith is not going to apply. If a great business leader or non-educator wanted the superintendent's job, he or she would have come forward during one of the five searches in the last 18 years. Any candidate with an ounce of curiosity will see the long shadows of the school board, city and county mayors, and city council.

Herenton knows where all the schools are, and he is probably one of about a dozen people in Memphis who can say that. He can find not only the bathrooms but also the skeletons and the fat at 2597 Avery. He oughta know, some will say. He might make the central office leaner and meaner. He would close some underused schools and take the heat. He won't bat .400, but he can still hit .300, with power, when he wants to.

He would be playing on his home field in front of a mostly friendly crowd. His hardcore constituency would be the 115,000 students in Memphis City Schools and their parents, not the electorate that gave him just 70,000 votes and 42 percent in 2007.

He is not a nice guy, like his old friend and former superintendent Johnnie B. Watson. He is not demure, like former superintendent Gerry House. He is not tied to old friends from Minnesota or likely to be hired away by Boston or some other school district, like Carol Johnson. He is not a racist. The handful of optional schools with significant white enrollment wouldn't exist without him. And he is a gray-haired, 67-year-old man, which is physiologically different from being a 47-year-old man.

He is a tough guy who can speak the language of the street. So, who do you want telling gangbangers to clean up their act? Or telling hard-working kids that they can make it to college and have successful careers?

Outspoken former school board member Sara Lewis has a city job. If Herenton owed her one, he's even.

He would doubtless drive off some good people, but he would also hire a lot of young idealists who remind him of himself 30 years ago.

If he wants to make a symbolic gesture and defuse a rumor or two, Herenton could offer to take the job for the same salary he makes now as mayor.

Herenton would be a motivated superintendent instead of a frustrated, ineffective mayor. If he resigns, there might or might not be a better mayor in our future. That's democracy. There might also be a better superintendent in our future. The formal search could attract some strong candidates, and the school board could pick one. Or not.

A strange and risky choice, for sure, but that's where we are.

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