Irreparable Damage

When does the community's best interest cease to matter? For months, members of the Memphis City Schools board have pointedly committed themselves to being accountable to the community. Prior to almost every vote, members have said things such as "We owe this to the community," "The community deserves ...," etc. All of this dedication to the greater good seemed to disappear during Monday's board meeting, when board members fell into old habits.

During a heated discussion and subsequent vote on a facilities maintenance contract, audience members were taken back to the outbursts and contention that marked the terms of former superintendents Johnnie Watson and Gerry House. Since Superintendent Carol Johnson's term began in October 2003, the board has been on a relatively even keel, in spite of tough votes on school mergers and corporal punishment.

But the ugly side of school-board politics reared up again as Commissioner Sara Lewis, in a virtuoso demonstration of out-of-control rage, accused Johnson of having lied about a contract for facility management. Lewis then had to be restrained from attacking fellow commissioner Jeff Warren. Even the normally mild-mannered Carl Johnson alluded darkly to backroom deals made by commissioners with "commitments somewhere."

"I promised you that if you treated me fairly I'd never go against you, but you didn't," Lewis shouted at Johnson. Insisting that she had somehow been betrayed, she then produced a tantrum worthy of The Jerry Springer Show.

Sorry, Ms. Lewis, but it's Memphis that has been betrayed by such a sorry breach of decorum.

The cash-strapped district stands to save $2 million each year with Trammell Crow, the superintendent's designated provider, managing the district's maintenance. An alternative option, that of bringing maintenance services in-house, had been backed by several commissioners, including Lewis. But the viability of that course was never made clear. In the end, what Superintendent Johnson decided may have been inevitable.

But right or wrong, surely it was possible to debate the issue without recourse to the kind of spectacle thrust upon the community Monday night. That little performance may have caused irreparable damage in relations between the superintendent and the board. It certainly dealt a serious blow to this board's reputation.


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