Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Herenton Gives His Schools Speech

Posted By on Tue, May 6, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Calling his speech a "momentous event," Mayor Willie Herenton told City Council members Tuesday that the city schools administration is bloated and there are too many underused schools, but it would not be a good idea to cut $93 million out of the MCS budget at this time.

Herenton said numerous times in his 50-minute speech and 25 minutes of questions that "I am not a candidate for superintendent." But he also said the school system is "a man's job" and needs a tough leader in the mold of Joe Clark in the movie Lean On Me. He did not say whether he would accept an invitation to be that person, unlikely as that seems given the tepid response to his non-candidacy since his letter of non-resignation as mayor on March 19th.

"A month ago I was probably in a different mood about this," he admitted in response to a question from Council member Janis Fullilove.

The mayor's latest rendition of his puzzling personal career path is that he was merely responding to an invitation from City Council member Wanda Halbert to share his wisdom and experience. To that end, he presented what he called a "Blueprint for School Reform." He took no questions from the media following the presentation.

Herenton said he began to believe the school system was "getting itself in trouble" while Gerry House was superintendent 10 years ago but kept his thoughts to himself. He claimed the system has become fat with too many administrators, but school board member Dr. Jeff Warren, who was in the audience, said administration accounts for less than two percent of the system's $900 million budget.

Herenton called for a return to corporal punishment for students in grades K-8, removal of blight around school buildings, a decentralized management structure, and closing some schools that are below 60 percent capacity. He said the goal of sending every MCS student to college is "unrealistic" and "a bunch of nonsense," and it would be better to train many students in vocational skills. He called for two new technology middle schools, one downtown and one at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

He said it will take three to five years to make substantial academic progress, but the system can be made more efficient "overnight" with the "right leadership."

He also said the time is right to change the school funding formula for city and county schools. He seemed to suggest that the city system has enjoyed a construction windfall of excess revenue -- a comment frequently made by county school board leaders and administrators.

He said his March letter of non-resignation and his crisis intervention moves were prompted by the school board's announcement that it would undertake a national search for a new superintendent and his fear that the search would select a short-term superintendent interested in building a resume. The selection of a superintendent is the most important decision a school board makes, he said.

City Councilman Harold Collins asked why he should not vote to cut the city's $93 million to schools in order to avoid a property tax increase of 58 cents, as Herenton has proposed.

"It is difficult to justify the funding when many of our people are suffering," Collins said. He added that this was especially true if the school administration is as inefficient and bloated as Herenton says it is. "Give the community a year to work through the funding dilemma," Herenton said.

School board members were meeting later Tuesday to hear the names of superintendent candidates recommended by their search consultants.

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