Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Problem with Quick Consensus

Posted By on Thu, Sep 5, 2013 at 11:11 AM

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Don't let it go to your head, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

Six votes ain't a landslide. Anyone who says, as a certain newspaper did, that "many applaud" your swift appointment has a bit of a counting problem. Six people quoted in an article, two of whom are current school board members, is not that many, and yes, I know headlines are shorthand and I have been guilty of this myself. "Many" times.

Take it from a veteran of the scribbling class: If someone says you're wise or smart or insightful it means they agree with you, no more.

The 23-member unified school board was a circus, for sure, as those who attended the 5-hour meetings well know. But that stage of the process probably had to happen. Birthing a baby often takes hours, and, I am told, is quite painful.

Hopson never would have gotten the job a year ago or two years ago, much less a week ago. I thought he was a cold fish, but I was wrong. He was doing his job as general counsel the way he was supposed to do it. Now that I have gotten to know him a little bit I think he's a swell guy and right for the job. (That means he agrees with me.)

A 23-member board is too big, but a six-member board, in addition to being an even number, is too small. That's one board member for every 24,000 students in the system. That doesn't square too well with the theory that school governance should be as close to the people as possible. In the six future municipal school systems, assuming they happen, there will be five board members, for a ratio of 2,000-1 or less. And notice that most of those positions are going to be contested races. There is always disagreement.

If quick consensus is such a great idea then why not just have 3-member boards? The former Shelby County school board had 7 members. For most of the board's existence, all of the members were white and male, even though the county system had thousands of black and female students. No wonder there was so much harmony and consensus, as board members endlessly reminded us dysfunctional Memphians.

I rarely covered the old county board but I knew one of its customers, developer Jackie Welch, well. As he told me once, he "kinda had the market" on new schools and the subdivisions that fed them for several years. It's hard to get that kind of clout in a place like Memphis where there is/was more diversity and scrutiny.

Hopson, as he knows, is in the honeymoon period. Let's see how much consensus there is when the size of the board is finalized, members are elected or appointed, and the tough issues come down the pipe. Like who gets the buildings and the students, and at what cost.

One more note. The details of Hopson's contract are being worked out. That presumably includes his pay, which is likely to be higher than the pay of the city and county mayors. Anyone alarmed by that should take a peek at the publicly available tax forms (form 990, available on line at guidestar.org) of local private schools that are about one percent the size of the unified system but pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to their leaders.

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