|PHOTO by TREY HARRISON|
She wants to talk to someone at Inman Construction to see if they can shed some light on the firm's guesstimate for the Whitney Elementary and Longview Middle schools' HVAC project. Then she needs to talk to someone from the alternative-school program, then Ken Foster at the Memphis Education Association. She also wants to go over the Honeywell contract with procurement-services director Ed Bumpus, and she wants to talk with contract manager coordinator Gloria Hayes about minority bidders. Lewis also needs to go over her upcoming calendar with the board's secretary to add a few more events to her schedule.
But before she can do any of that, she sees a young couple and their son standing in the doorway. They have a problem with their son's elementary school; they've gone through the proper channels, and now they want to see someone at the board level. Lewis ushers them into the office.
It is precisely these types of actions that some would call micromanaging, one of the many criticisms leveled at the Memphis City School board in the past year. Lewis is, of course, one of the most outspoken and visible members of that board.
A product of Manassas High and LeMoyne-Owen College, she served as teacher, principal, and associate superintendent in the district before joining the board in 1992. She'll tell you that the board's true functions are to approve the budget, make district policy, and preside over one employee: the superintendent.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? But in the past year, the board has been accused of pettiness, ineptitude, spending too much money on construction projects, and the aforementioned micromanaging, among other things. It's seen one conflict after another, each one seemingly worse than the one before. Earlier this month, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, a former superintendent himself, called for the creation of an appointed school board.
Lewis has been at the forefront of many of these conflicts. She was harshly critical of district management when mold was discovered at East High School, and she advocated for a group of East High staff and parents who contended that a child had been locked in a closet. In response to her barbed public criticism of him, superintendent Johnnie B. Watson filed a formal harassment complaint against Lewis in December.
"People laugh when I remind them I've been on the roof; I've been in the basement," Lewis says. "People don't understand what I'm saying. I'm saying that I understand Memphis City Schools from top to bottom."
Love her or hate her, she is, in a way, the de facto voice of the district. She's almost always accessible to the media and has a knife-edged tongue. She speaks in a sharp staccato seemingly made for sound bites, and doesn't shy away from controversy. She's not self-conscious enough to avoid making an emotional scene but self-conscious enough to know how to use it to her advantage. She is the type of take-charge woman that some people call a battle-ax. Others might use another b-word. But that's not the only side to Sara Lewis.
"Look at where my focus has been," Lewis says. "It's been on children, on minority affairs and equity issues, on standards. It's been on the things that need to come about to make Memphis City Schools a better school system."
She knows that her demeanor can be off-putting, but she says people should look more at her actions: the resolutions she writes; the ways she helps parents.
And although her confrontational style may not always sit well with her colleagues, Lewis' core constituency -- namely poor students and their parents, as well as many teachers -- keeps coming to her with their problems.
On this December day, she takes a few minutes to talk to a former district teacher.
Charlesta Meadows has come to the board office specifically to see Lewis, hoping that if anyone could help, it would be her. Meadows worked at Winchester Elementary for three years. On June 14, 2002, after beginning to teach summer school, she received a letter from her principal informing her that her contract would not be renewed. Meadows says because of her students' high test scores and because she had just been hired to teach summer school, she thought the letter had to be a mistake. She continued working at the school until June 28th, daily walking past the principal who had fired her without him ever saying a word to her about it. She got her last evaluation by mail, but because she was no longer an employee, she couldn't look at her file to find out why she had been fired.
Lewis gives her the hard truth, kindly but resolutely. The district is not going to rehire Meadows, and there's very little that either she or Meadows can do about it. Meadows, though crestfallen, seems relieved to have spoken with someone who would be straight with her.
"One thing I do is listen," says Lewis. "I understand the kinds of things parents are concerned about. I think we need more than one person in customer service. They come to the board and they want someone to listen to them. That's what the constituents expect." Although it's not within her official capacity -- or even within her authority as a board member -- to help the people who come to her, she fills her days with it, saying that she is both a policy maker and a public servant.
Michael Hooks Jr., last year's board president, says there are people who have gotten Lewis all wrong. "Deep down inside, Mrs. Lewis will die for you if she feels you've been wronged and there's a righteous way to go," he says. "Her heart is into this work."
Lewis began her career in teaching after majoring in sociology at LeMoyne-Owen. She says she was planning to go to graduate school in social work, but her mother became ill and there was no local program. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to go off and leave my mother. Even though I was married, I just couldn't leave my mother."
Because she had picked up credits in education along the way, she applied for a teaching certificate, took the national exam, and got a job at Georgia Avenue Elementary. It may not have been her original plan, but she grew to like the idea.
"I just loved it. I would get upset with myself if my children didn't learn. I pushed them because I told them they were my children and my children were different from everybody else's children," she says. "They
were poor, but we didn't let that stop us."
Lewis doesn't seem to let anything stop her. She tells a story about when she was in elementary school and her father took time off from work to take her and her sister to the old board offices. She and her sister were given tests to take. At the time, she says, she didn't understand what was going on.
"Later, I asked my daddy about it, and he said, 'Well, honey, they didn't think that poor little Negro children could score as high as you and your sister did on a standardized achievement test.' So we had to go down and sit in this room surrounded by all these white women while we were retested. ... That's an insult."
"My grandmother then told me: 'You have to be as good as any three white students.' She didn't push, but those kinds of things have made me an overachiever. You had to be better than your best. I read volumes of stuff. I keep up. I'm trying to figure out what's going on. People don't understand why I do it. It's a lifestyle of mine."
Although she describes her grandmother as a role model, it was during that first teaching job that Lewis found a mentor in the principal who hired her. "This lady was incredible," Lewis says. "She walked fast; she talked quickly. She was a bear but she wasn't really a bear." Lewis says the principal also had a voice you could hear from miles away and a commanding presence. She was generous but exacting of her staff. Later in her career, when Lewis became principal at Lauderdale Elementary, she looked to Georgia Avenue for guidance.
Lewis says being a principal was her most rewarding experience. "You're the head of an institution," she says, "and you have teachers and students and support workers and parents that you can mold and shape and guide and direct. I did not just have a school. They would call it the Lauderdale 'family.'"
She recalls those days fondly, talking about how teachers had to share supplies and how they gave each child the opportunity to walk across the stage at least once a year so their parents could see them. She remembers how the staff taught boys to open doors for girls and how the students once tried to call the police on her husband because they saw a man in the parking lot going through her car trunk.
"Even though we were very poor and not the best community in Memphis, my children learned and they behaved," she says, adding that it was a team effort and that she was just "Sara," not Mrs. or Principal Lewis.
"If somebody got an idea, they ran it up the flagpole," she says. "I only vetoed things that were illegal or immoral. My teachers were fearless. Anytime you could get white teachers to come out to an inner-city school after dark, then you've accomplished a hell of a lot."
While she was principal of Lauderdale, Lewis became president of the Memphis Public Schools Association and established a working relationship with then-Superintendent Herenton. The cabinet of the association met with the superintendent once a month to discuss problems at the schools. "I knew Willie because we had gone to college together," Lewis says, "but I didn't know him very well. I would come in with my list of concerns and pass them out and I would say I want this and this and this." It was Herenton who promoted her to associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
Lewis left the district as an employee in 1990, only to return as a board member in 1992. During the years that followed, she headed Free the Children, a North Memphis anti-poverty program, until 1998. She became involved with HeadStart in 1995, first as a member of the policy council and later on the board of directors. She then became HeadStart's executive director. Both HeadStart and Free the Children had problems under Lewis' leadership. FTC faced financial woes and HeadStart came under fire when federal inspectors found problems with its management, facilities, and programming. Lewis stayed on at HeadStart until December 2000, when she resigned -- amid controversy -- citing family health problems.
It's not uncommon for Lewis to pipe up with a district history lesson during board discussions. And when she asks questions, she almost always knows the answer in advance.
"Sometimes things are discussed and Wanda [Halbert] will say, 'Well, I just got here. I don't know that.' I'm going, she's right; she doesn't know that. So when we get to something that's under consideration, I'll just say [what I know]. It's not bragging. It's just that I know. I don't try to be a leader. I try to support the superintendent. The only thing I'm trying to do is move the process along and help children."
There's little doubt, however, that Lewis likes to be in charge. Given her outspokenness and knowledge, it's not surprising that her name has been mentioned in connection with the superintendent's job. But Lewis says she's never wanted to be superintendent and would be miserable in that role.
"I don't like administration. That's what I can't get people to understand," she says. "I would be bored to death going around meeting folks and shaking hands all day. I would be bored stiff."
And while she seems happy with her position on the board, one wonders if she ever had other ambitions. "In a different time and era, maybe my skills would have been better used," she says. "But it's kind of difficult when you find a 66-year-old black woman who stands flatfooted on the ground and will tell you, 'Nope, that ain't going to be.' I have to be true to myself and to what I believe in. Public education got me across."
Despite her intentions, Lewis' abrasive style has caused problems. She says it's when she gets quiet that you know you're really in trouble -- not when she raises her voice -- but that probably doesn't bring much comfort to the people who've been on the receiving end of her tirades.
The recently released MGT study (commissioned by Watson to critique the performance of the district) and the superintendent's recently completed board evaluation both cited the need for better board/staff relations. In recent months the board has avoided much of the infighting that has historically plagued it, but there has been a steady decline in relations between the board and district staff.
"I don't like information presented in such a way that it obfuscates the real issue," says Lewis. "I have difficulty with that. Those are the things that push my buttons. I'm very honest, and I get upset when I think people are trying to pull the wool over my eyes."
During the most recent meeting of the board's construction committee, it was Lewis who, after a presentation by Honeywell on the Whitney and Longview project, read several memos about the project that were allegedly directed to associate superintendent of business operations Roland McElrath.
In one dated November 19th, John F. Williams, then-director of the division of Facility Planning, wrote: "The Capital Improvement Committee has not received from our team all the information on the Whitney Elementary and Longview Middle mechanical project. I am very uncomfortable with this fact. For our own protection, we are required to show that we have provided all the information we have in this regard." Williams came forward at the meeting later, at the request of commissioner Wanda Halbert, and made a brief statement to the same effect.
The memos were the latest in a string of incidents that damaged the staff's credibility with the board. Last year, board commissioners voiced concerns about the district's transportation contract with Laidlaw. Although the concerns were dismissed by district staff at the time, an internal audit revealed several clauses in the contract that were disadvantageous to the district.
At the committee meeting, McElrath said he had no knowledge of Williams' memos, which dated from October and November and were written on Williams' MCS letterhead.
Lewis says, "I never tried to hide anything from my boards. I just didn't. I thought you had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I kept my president as close as my telephone. If something went down, I would call them and say, 'Let me tell you what's going on,' because I'm going to tell on myself. I think some of my board members understand and respect that, and I think others don't understand it as well."
Although Watson kept mum on the specific details relating to his harassment complaint against her, Lewis is demanding of staff at board meetings, asking them continually for extra information. She says she needs the information to make informed decisions as a board member.
"I'm very impatient, except with old people and children. I have an infinite amount of patience with them," she says. "I don't have patience with other folk. I think people need to grasp something the second time it's presented."
The problems at the school system show no sign of abating. Everyone involved seems to acknowledge the need for improved relations between the board and staff, and MGT says it should be a top priority for the district in the next six months. It will likely be the biggest challenge -- and the key to fixing other problems in the district, such as how best to implement suggestions from the MGT study and how to structure future funding.
The board has to go before the city council on January 21st to defend the Honeywell HVAC project. And there has been no resolution on the two new funding-formula plans suggested by Herenton and county mayor A C Wharton. Wharton was hoping his plan could be acted on this month so that work could begin on the Arlington project.
Lewis says all the parties involved -- county and city school boards, the city council, the county commission, and the two mayors -- need to work together. "Those groups need to be brought together and with a very skillful facilitator decide that our schools are not what we need them to be," she says. "If we take it out of the public atmosphere, I think we can forge some kind of plan and get over this hump to the next step. It's got to be a plan of the people."
"I'm very outspoken," she continues, stating the obvious. "Many people consider me to be brash. I am brash, but I'm not self-centered. I'm a fighter. I've had to fight for the people I represent all the time. I've had to fight for a long time on many fronts. I'm not assertive. I'm aggressive. And there's a difference."
Brash, aggressive, self-centered, assertive. Call her what you will, one thing is guaranteed: If there's a battle, Sara Lewis will be in the thick of it.
The MCS board faces a number of challenges in coming month, so don't expect the sparks to stop anytime soon. The board is scheduled to meet with the city council January 21st over a $50 million line of credit needed for the Longview/Whitney HVAC project.
Judging from the last construction committee meeting, the board might want to look at rebidding the project if negotiations with Honeywell don't net any cost reduction. During the meeting, board members lashed out at staff, who they said did not give them all the necessary information for making the decision. It's unclear how they will defend the project before the city council.
The MGT study recommends that elementary schools have at least 745 students and middle schools 900 students. The two schools at the center of the Honeywell controversy are far below the recommended enrollment and have been steadily losing students for years. Whitney Elementary School, built in 1962, has 503 students, down from 685 students in 1999, according to Memphis City Schools reports. Longview Middle School, built in 1955, has 530 students, down from 622 students in 1999.
The school board has approved $14.8 million for air conditioning and heating systems at Whitney and Longview. The debate so far has been over the price, but the MGT study suggests the focus should be on spending money at all for major repairs to underused schools.
The board and the city council will also have to meet in coming months, along with the county commission, county school board, and both mayors, to decide how each local district should be funded. With Mayor Herenton's and Mayor Wharton's plans on the table -- and the county school board sweating over when it'll get to start the Arlington construction project -- it's got the makings of a bumpy ride. The county doesn't want to fund the three-to-one formula, but the city doesn't want to dissolve an agreement that guarantees capital funding from the county.
The district has been criticized for being management top-heavy. The MGT audit suggested ways the administration could be reorganized. Along with creating a new deputy superintendent for policy development, adding another zone director, and reorganizing the department of research, testing, and accountability, the study suggested the district could save $350,000 if it staffed school administration consistently.
Although the burden of implementing these initiatives rests on the staff, with $114 million in potential savings on the table, it's certain that everyone will be keeping tabs on how the district responds to the study.
Oh, and there's also the threat of state takeover, more environmental problems, and finding a new superintendent to replace the soon-to-retire Watson.