Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Talking with Kriner Cash

Posted on Wed, Jul 23, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash says he comes from a "different cut of tree."

"I always believe in turning negative into positives," he says. If that’s the case, he will have plenty to choose from.

The new superintendent -- so new, in fact, that he sometimes calls the Memphis City Schools "them" instead of "us" -- is heading up a school district currently embroiled in a court battle over almost $70 million in cut city funding. The system also has challenges in educational achievement, student safety, and mismanagement.

The Flyer recently sat down with Cash to see what he’s thinking, other than 'What did I get myself into?'

Flyer: What is the school system’s greatest challenge?

Cash: It seems to me that the greatest challenge is to help change the perception of our general constituents about our school system, turning from one that is probably a fairly low rating to one that is a much higher rating. On a scale of one to 10, it seems to me the perception is -- in general -- a two to three and we’d like it to be a seven to nine.

How do you change that perception?

You change that perception by improving services, improving the perceived quality of education programming, by improving the product that comes out by graduation. When a student graduates, he or she is reading at a college level and is ready to go right into college or post-secondary careers.

When we look at the data, we have some room to improve.

There are a lot of positive elements in the school system as well, and we need to do a better job of publicizing and marketing them. That helps change perception, too. I want to use our radio station and our TV station to get the message out about the exemplary things that are going on in our schools and create interest and demand for those programs.

Where are you looking to cut the budget?

There is going to be hundreds of folks who will have to get cut if I have to stay without this $66 million. There are probably 300 or 400 positions that will be affected. And then there’s a whole range of what we call budget object lines that are also going to be impacted by this.

For example, professional services, property maintenance, contracted services. We have to get in and really look at those and cut those to the bone. Furniture, technology and equipment. Travel. All of that is going to have to be looked at to come up with the $66 million. Salaries and benefits, though, will be the biggest driver.

Given the fiscal uncertainty, how do you create stability in the school district?

We’ve already begun to do that, first just by conveying the sense of strong leadership, of urgency, of accountability and of increased expectations for everyone.

In any organization that slipped a little bit in terms of direction, the troops really want direction. They want leadership, so by just having this accountability system that cascades from the board of commissioners through the superintendent down into every administrative employee for example, I see people excited about that.

We haven’t had that. There’s been a lot of activity but there hasn’t been concentrated productivity in our main operational areas, so I’m bringing a renewed focus on both the business side of the house and the academic side of the house.

When community starts seeing the results, that’s how stability comes about.

You also have to re-examine your practices and procedures for doing business, from payroll to purchase orders, your warehousing at the Central Nutrition Center, to transportation, facilities management. There are places where we are saving money and there are other places where we could save a whole lot more if we improve our processes and efficiency.

The Nutrition Center is one. Opening up our books and our business practices to outside folks is another. Some business people have offered to do it without charge, so I’m not talking about paying more consultants to come in here. We have enough consultants.

Given all the challenges, why would you -- or anyone -- want this job?

Most people don’t want it and most people can’t do it. You don’t see a long line out in America right now for superintendencies, period, let alone the large, urban districts.

It is one of the toughest jobs in America today. The issues are the demands and the no-win situations that a lot of people feel. I don’t feel that way, though. I come from a different cut of tree and I always believe in turning negatives into positives.

When people really want to see change and they’re actually asked to help with it, as opposed to ignored, there’s almost a revolution that occurs.

Right now, right at this moment, we have to capture it because there is a small revolution going on in Memphis.

I think that’s what excites me at this stage in my life. I’m not in it for any money; I’m not in it for any personal prestige or influence or power. I’m in it because we didn’t quite get to finish our work in Miami and I want to see the work through. Of all the places, Memphis has all the ingredients to get it down on a large scale.

I don’t want to go back to a small system. I’ve done that. I’m interested in the large challenges.

You’ve been given what the daily newspaper dubbed “a hero’s welcome.” How does that make you feel?

There’s pressure there. I’m pragmatic about it. It’s early; it’s new. We’ve had a year almost of an interim scenario. Dan Ward did a great job, but it’s tough. Being the interim is a different role than being in the seat and knowing that you have a mandate to go forward, which is what I feel I have. That’s what that welcome told me is that, you have a mandate now to improve the system, and we’re behind you but we want to see that.

Everyday I’m going to give my full to it and the only one I worry about is my wife when I get up at 2 and 3 in the morning and start writing stuff down. Because you’re always thinking about this work. It does consume you, quite honestly.

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