For those Memphians who thought theyd heard all the fireworks the night before, the remarks by Mayor Willie Herenton at city councilman Myron Lowerys annual New Years prayer breakfast at the Peabody had to come as something of a shock. And there was lots of unexpected heat for an audience that had come in shivering.
After a graceful introduction by his relatively new Shelby County counterpart, A C Wharton, the mayor announced he was there to say some things and maybe step on a few toes, though (he said straight-facedly) what he had to say was not about personalities
Viewing with alarm the state of things in every governmental sphere save Memphis, Herenton said the Paradigm of 2002 should not be the paradigm of 2003. He spent a few words boasting of the citys fiscally sound status, compared to such metropolises as New York and Atlanta, praised his administrators and the city council as being prudent, not reckless, and noted that, after being nominated by council member TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, hed been named Mayor of the Year by a national magazine devoted to municipal and county governments.
Then he rapidly got down to business, musing on the deep-seated problems in local education. He could not be pleased, he said, when there were two governments and two separate school systems, neither with appropriate resources.
This was all on account of -- or the cause of -- too many selfish agendas.
Referring to a recent suggestion by Shelby County schools superintendent Bobby Webb that new county schools should be built at a safe distance from the annexation areas of Memphis, the mayor said he had a message for the superintendent, noting parenthetically, Hes a newcomer. Ive been around a long time.
Such thinking was unacceptable to me, Herenton said, and so were the reform notions envisioned by Webb (and, by implication, Wharton, who recently suggested a plan of his own that would, among other things, revise the funding formula, abhorred in the suburbs, that favors the city over the county by a ratio of 3-to-one in the distribution of state capital-construction funds).
Im going to do all that I can to lobby the Memphis city council and the Memphis Board of Education [against it]. And, Mr. Mayor [Wharton], that is no disrespect to your reform plan.
There were just some things he needed to make clear to the suburbanites, Herenton said. They boast of having superior schools. They ought to pay for them.
The mayor said, I came here today to put the gloves on and draw battle lines, because the aforesaid suburban mayors dont want to do the right thing. And: If they dont need Memphis, they dont need our tax dollars.
Then the Memphis mayor turned his attack in another direction. After promising that his own reform plan of a year ago -- one which envisioned single-source funding but separate school jurisdictions -- would be back on the agenda for the Memphis School Board, Herenton said, The School Board is a disaster...It makes no sense.
Singing out member Hubert Dutch Sandridge, who tore up my proposal, Herenton warned the board, Your business is my businessÉThere is no law that my signature is not on.
He compared his own tenure as schools superintendent favorably with that of his successor, Dr. Gerry House, who, he said, was a disaster, a dilettante who had loaded the school system with unnecessary programs and got herself a lot of awards and moved on, leaving current superintendent Johnnie B. Watson to clean up after her.
Rounding again on the Board, Herenton said, Your best aint good enough, and accused the board of spending our dollars with arrogance. Pledging again to draw deep battle lines, he said, I have tried compromise. Ive tried everything. I worked with these officials to try to get them to do the right thing.
I run a city and I run it well, Herenton said, promising to work with Wharton in devising a school-reform plan both could agree one.These suburban mayors dont want to do the right thing, he said They like you better than they like me....Let their schools be overpopulated..
The mayor repeated I want to tell Hubon Sandridge. That proposal he tore up, its coming back. The two-headed current educational structures and the piecemeal approaches that characterized them were not only ineffective but too expensive, he said, a constant goad to the city and county tax rates. Ask the realtors, Ask the homebuilders, he said.
The latter point drew a grudging assent from Wharton, who, however, left the room quickly when the mayor had finished. Seemingly baffled by that fact, Herenton insisted that his remarks were not personal, that he had merely been trying to challenge Wharton and the other exemplars of local government.
At least one member of his audience, school board member Sara Lewis, took his remarks in that spirit. Somebody should get the four units talking, she said, meaning the city/county legislative bodies and school boards. Maybe itll be me. Maybe Ill call a meeting.
Oh, and lest anyone out there hadnt known, Mayor Herenton said after his speech that of course, hed be running again in 2003.