Making a deceptively brief and low-key pitch to members of the city council Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Willie Herenton solicited their help in arranging a referendum on the November ballot to determine whether the city school board should henceforth "be appointed or elected."
Herenton further suggested to council members Myron Lowery and Janis Fullilove, who double as members of the city Charter Commission, that they might consider authorizing such a referendum as part of their own forthcoming ballot initiative in November.
Absent from his presentation to the council was any hint of the slight edge with which the mayor had first broached his proposal for "dramatic school reform" at a press conference in the Hall of Mayors on Monday. At the heart of it was a variation on a vintage Herenton proposal, a five-member board to be appointed by the mayor and ratified, in effect, by the council.
And Herenton seemed intent Tuesday on being as ingratiating as possible to the current council, beginning by complimenting it for having "demonstrated that it could really make a difference in this community on some very important fronts." As he would put it, contrasting the current 13-member body, nine of whose members are in their first year, with previous ones, "This is not a status quo council. I see a different mix here."
The mayor drew an implicit contrast, too, between the council and the school board, which had just rejected him as a prospect for the school superintendency and whose existence as an elected body he now proposes to abolish. The council, on the other hand, "as that body that takes the heat for the tax rate, ought to have greater authority and accountability for the schools."
Insisting that the plan he was broaching was "not about me," Herenton said it should be structured so as not to take effect until 2012. "That's when Willie Herenton is history. You follow me?"
The mayor credited a "different climate" of opinion in the state and the nation, and factors like the No Child Left Behind Act, for his sense that now was the time to "make these changes while we can."
In a brief give-and-take with reporters following his session with the council, Herenton was asked about his current opposition to the council's decision last week to withhold funding from Memphis City Schools. A reporter reminded him that he had proposed just such an expedient several years ago as a means of forcing the issue of consolidation.
"Somehow or another, you have to send a shockwave," said Herenton, who said, "Nobody heard me then." Now, however, there was a different council and a different attitude toward change in Nashville. The mayor seemed to be inviting a different idea - that of state intervention, reminding the reporters of what he had also mentioned to the council, that state government under the Bredesen administration had begun to intervene directly in the Nashville school system.
Had the mayor been functioning then, or was he functioning now, s as a "puppetmaster?" the newsman wanted to know. "I'm not going to let you personalize the issue. We're trying to change the culture," the mayor said.