People can talk about crime being the number-one issue. It's not. Education is. If we can educate our kids, crime goes down, but the present educational system has failed us all. It's time for a radical change.
The departure of Memphis' latest school superintendent, Carol Johnson, provides an opportunity to revolutionize Memphis City Schools (MCS). In its present state, it's nothing but a system that is failing to educate, is fiscally irresponsible, and is a major drag on the general welfare of this community. And the only solution we ever hear from our educators is: Give us more money.
But just consider: The city school budget is already almost twice the budget of the city of Memphis. The operating budget for the 675,000 residents of Memphis is $539 million. This encompasses fire and police protection, roads, garbage collection, parks, sewers, city courts, and much more. By contrast, the operating budget for the Memphis public school system — for 119,000 students seven hours a day, nine months a year — stands at $918 million. The two budgets were roughly equal in the 1990s, but in recent years, the school budget has escalated dramatically — with rapidly diminishing results. Increased funding is not the answer; better management is.
More than a decade ago, we saw Superintendent Gerry House come and go with rave early reviews, only to realize later that her tenure was, to say the least, unsuccessful. Johnson has come and is now going with the same tepid results. Yes, she can extrapolate from the reams of data at her disposal and point to some slight test-score improvement here and some minor success there, but that's more show than substance. We forget that running the school system is a billion-dollar-a-year business for which a doctorate of education offers little training.
The results of overlooking business credentials can be seen in school projects such as the Mitchell High School auditorium, which escalated from a $1 million auditorium renovation to a $5 million performing-arts center, with no one accountable to explain how it happened. There is a new $20 million child nutritional center that no one knows how to run, whose need is questionable, and which is operating at 20 percent capacity with no positive results for students. Tens of millions have been spent for consulting contracts with no demonstrable purpose other than to provide cover for the lack of business acumen on the part of the superintendent and the school board. I could go on.
It is now the time for all to come to the realization that the Memphis City Schools system is broken and not fixable by means of the present school board/superintendent structure. If MCS were a company, it would be a prime candidate for Chapter 11 reorganization.
As it happens, there is a means at hand to accomplish the reorganization of a school system. Before we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to employ "hiring consultants" to bring in another superintendent with more of the same credentials, it may be time for Governor Phil Bredesen to exert his authority under the No Child Left Behind Act and take over the school system, as he has recently threatened to do.
He needs to do what Mayor Herenton wanted to do, and that's to fire the school board, which has been riddled with incompetence, conflicts, turf protection, and emotional outbursts, and bring in a new head with a new team to shake this system to its very core, rebuilding it from the ground up — a new school "czar," to use an overworked term.
This new head could operate outside of the political arena and make those hard decisions that need to be made unfettered by school boards and prior contractual constraints.
We can delude ourselves into thinking that success is just around the corner, but it's not. Another search team looking for another superintendent with the same old resume for the same old system won't work. We've been down that road before.
It's time for a radical change, and I believe Governor Bredesen has the guts and ability — and the legal and political wherewithal — to change the system.
Now is the time to act. Memphis restaurateur John Vergos is a former city councilman.