Thursday, June 12, 2008

Superintendent Search

The MCS school board preserved itself while installing a new co-leader.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 12, 2008 at 4:00 AM

If Memphis school board members stick to their schedule, and if six of them can agree, there will be a new superintendent by the time you read this.

My hedged bet is on Kriner Cash. But whether that guess is right or wrong, three men with a combined total of more than 100 years experience in public schools and government — Cash, Nicholas Gledich, and Willie Herenton — gave thoughtful attention to MCS. The next superintendent and the school board should learn from all of them.

Let's get one thing straight. School board members, led by Chairman Tomeka Hart, and The Commercial Appeal will herald a successful search and a new day for MCS. But the process did not change the status quo in one fundamental way: The school board is still there. Memphis was unwilling to follow the lead of urban systems such as New York City and Washington, D.C., which have done away with elected school boards.

Herenton won't get the schools job, but he will continue to be a player so long as he serves out his fifth mayoral term, which doesn't expire until 2012. The Herenton non-candidacy is dead, but the "Herenton Blueprint for School Reform" lives.

Or some of it, anyway. Corporal punishment for grades K-8 is opposed by both Cash and Gledich. Underused schools operating at less than 60 percent capacity will get a reprieve for at least another year without the only proven school-closer — Herenton — as superintendent. City-county school consolidation, which Herenton endorsed in January but backed away from in May, is not going to fly.

Other parts of the Herenton blueprint will fare better. Vocational education, or applied education if you prefer, got everyone's support. So did a central office overhaul, but not to the extent of Herenton's proposal that every administrative job be declared vacant. A new school at the Mid-South Fairgrounds is in developer Henry Turley's master plan. The motto "Every Child, College Bound, Every Day" is not long for this world. Maybe Herenton's "Business as usual is a recipe for disaster" should replace it.

Hanging questions include the city-county school funding formula based on average daily attendance, the classification of Southwind High School and future schools in unannexed areas as city or county schools, the tense relationship between the school board and the City Council, and the city's extra financial contribution — if any — to MCS.

Kriner Cash would be a Memphis celebrity. He is telegenic, with an intriguing, Obama-like biography. High school athlete in Cincinnati. Exchange student to Norway. Degrees from Princeton and Stanford. Child of a white mother of Pennsylvania Dutch and French descent who played piano and sang in Tommy Dorsey's band and a black "Renaissance man" (architect, professor, scholar) father. Cash praises Strunk and White's little classic The Elements of Style and vows to write a monthly newspaper column. And surely he is the first candidate for superintendent of MCS to list squash as a hobby.

Cash says a superintendent should be "visible with a purpose." He is a lieutenant in the huge (353,216 students) Miami/Dade County Florida Public Schools. He expressed reservations last week about "full funding" of MCS after the City Council cut $72 million, and according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, he is interviewing in Cincinnati this week "regardless of the Memphis decision."

Memorable Cash quote: "I am going to bend this organization and bend it hard if data support that is what is needed."

Nicholas Gledich is a chief operating officer who makes the buses run on time and has been in the Orange County, Florida, school system for 30 years. He is a finalist for another superintendent's job in Osceola County, Florida.

Memorable Gledich quote: "If I'm your superintendent, I may have to say things to you [the board] that you don't want to hear. Shame on me if I don't say them."

Two things about the Orange County School System caught my eye. It has 65,000 more students than MCS but 24 fewer schools. And it has 13 schools on Newsweek's 2008 list of the best 1,358 public high schools in America. MCS has one. Nine of the Orlando standout schools are magnet schools, as is the one MCS school, White Station, which is called an optional school. In their "wisdom," some MCS board members are threatening to cut the optional program.

The superintendent search was rocky. The consultants from Ray and Associates held near-empty public meetings during spring break, failed to produce a list of 15 to 18 semifinalists, as they said they would, refused to disclose the names of other applicants among the 221 "inquiries" from 44 states and 54 "completed files," produced no details of the employment contract, and came up with two "finalists" who withdrew and two more who seem eager and qualified. MCS ought to hire both of them.

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