Monday, January 31, 2011

Cash and Whalum: Uneasy Collaborators

United for the moment on the referendum issue, the superintendent and the MSC Board maverick are oil and water on much else.

Posted by on Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 3:41 PM

click to enlarge Kriner Cash; Kenneth Whalum, Jr,
  • Kriner Cash; Kenneth Whalum, Jr,
“I’ll be long gone.” That was Kriner Cash’s half-serious jest in a conversation Friday night about when the end point might finally be reached in the ongoing wrangle between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools and between the divergent ways of life they represent.

Superintendent Cash has no immediate plans to ship out — or to give up the commitment to long-term educational reform of the city’s schools that he reasserts every time he speaks publicly about the showdown between the two school systems. The quip was just his resigned acknowledgment of what everybody suspects — that whatever the results of the forthcoming March 8 citywide referendum on MCS charter surrender, a morass of litigation and cross-purposes lies ahead.

Cash was asked whether he envisions a further role with a newly consolidated city/county school system if the referendum should pass, making Shelby County Schools — or Shelby County government or mayhap some newly created county entity — the overseer of the new system.

“There’s no guarantee I would continue on,” he said. And, after a pause, “there’s no guarantee that I would want to continue on.”

Cash made his comments while attending a Friday-night reception at The Peabody for Ralph Crowder, a documentarian who was previewing an introductory video for his work in progress, “Memphis, a City Rich in Song and Experience.”

The MCS superintendent is keenly aware of the differences between the system he heads and the one that now operates in suburban Shelby County, and he has made no secret of his concerns that the several reform initiatives he has pioneered at MCS will be lost in a de facto consolidation of the county’s two school systems.

“This has nothing to do with education, just politics and power,” Cash said — echoing a statement made by numerous opponents of MCS-SCS merger, including the Rev. Kenneth Whalum, pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church and an MCS board member who was also an attendee at the reception.

Since Cash’s arrival at the helm of MCS in 2008, the relationship between the two has been decidedly on again/off again. Just now it’s in an “on” phase, with the superintendent and the famously iconoclastic Board member both in stout resistance mode vis-à-vis the proposed charter surrender.

MCS superintendent Cash (right) with videographer Crowder
  • JB
  • MCS superintendent Cash (right) with videographer Crowder
But they have frequently clashed over some of Cash’s initiatives, and, even when Cash and Whalum, along with several other speakers, shared a stage at East High School some weeks ago at a Memphis Education Association rally against the surrender proposal, their differences surfaced.

On that occasion, Whalum concluded his remarks by expressing two preferences — first, that the assembled MEA members vote no on the March 8 referendum, and, second, “Let’s clean house at Memphis City Schools from top to bottom. By any means necessary.” Asked about that statement on Friday night at the reception, Whalum did not shy away from it, or its implications concerning Cash. “Yes, I’ve raised questions as to whether we have the right superintendent,” he said.

The current collaboration between the two is decidedly ad hoc, and the uneasiness of it surfaced during an audience discussion after Crowder had showed his introductory video. In the course of suggesting that the fully developed and revised project should include a major emphasis on the Memphis schools, a smiling Cash ventured a quip about his sometime nemesis Whalum, who, as an interviewee, had figured prominently in Crowder’s video.

“On the light side, I think it had way too much Kenneth T. Whalum,” As the audience laughed, Whalum added his own jest: “And that was the edited piece, man!”

At the last MSC Board meeting, Whalum had announced as “new business” three resolutions that he wants the Board to act on at its next meeting. One would require the Memphis Urban Debate League, a group with which MSC has partnered, to furnish the Board with a copy of its bylaws, something which was promised but has been long deferred. That, acknowledged Whalum Friday night, reflected his annoyance with the organization for scheduling a series of debates among Memphis high schoolers on the forthcoming charter-surrender referendum.

“They’ve got an agenda, no doubt. And, besides, they owe us those bylaws,” said Whalum.

A second Whalum resolution asks the Board to demand an “immediate tender” of the $57 still owed MCS by the City Council. And his third resolution would request, by way of providing for “post-surrender” closure, itemized reports on activity relating the pending Gates Foundation grant to MCS, a detailed summary of suspensions and expulsions in city schools; and an accounting of the rate of pregnancy in the system.

His lumping the pregnancy and suspension/expulsion figures in with the Gates Foundation issue (which relates to the whether a promised $90 million grant would continue in the event of a merger) is indicative of the fact that Whalum still intends to press internal MSC issues that could be unflattering and/or nettlesome to Cash.

The superintendent made it clear Friday night that he believes the reported figure of 90 pregnancies among students at Frayser High is misleading and “way off.” He said only 10 or so currently enrolled students were known to be pregnant, although another 47 had taken part in a voluntary counseling program for students in the system.

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