Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Deciders

Let's try this another way.

Posted By on Thu, May 22, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Let's call the superintendent of Memphis City Schools the decider.

Except the superintendent isn't really the decider. There are several deciders — the nine elected members of the school board, some elected from districts and some elected at-large. Five of them, in fact, are running for reelection this year. The superintendent decider works for the school board deciders.

But even these deciders can only decide some things, and approving the $900 million budget for Memphis City Schools is not one of them. Because the deciders at the Memphis City Council approve the budget and can withhold a lot of money and the deciders at the Shelby County Commission are ultimately the deciders on school funding matters for the whole county, Memphis included.

With so many deciders it is not surprising that the last four superintendent deciders have been more like contestants in a Miss Cogeniality contest than contestants in a Tough Man contest. That goes for two male deciders — Johnnie B. Watson and Dan Ward — and two female deciders — Gerry House and Carol Johnson. Four of the nicest, most soft-spoken, best-educated deciders you would ever want to meet. Even so, they had a hard time getting along with some of the school board deciders on certain decisions. There's even been some talk of letting the governor decider appoint the Memphis schools decider, except he decided that wouldn't be such a hot idea.

Willie Herenton is a mayor decider and former schools decider who would like to be a schools decider again if he could only make up his mind about his retirement and work with or, even better, without the deciders on the school board who will pick the next superintendent. Two finalists dropped out, rather late in the game it would seem. The 40 percent dropout rate among superintendent finalists is now uncomfortably close to the dropout rate among high school students in MCS.

One of the most important decisions that deciders have to make is whether or not to close schools that are less than 60 percent capacity. Memphis has several of them, because parents, who are also deciders, decided to move to other parts of town that had newer, better, or safer schools and neighborhoods. Closing schools, or "consolidating" them if you don't like blunt language, is the only way to save any big money, according to a study some consultants did for the school board deciders a few years ago.

Closing a school is about the toughest, most sleep-depriving thing a decider can do. It's easy for nondeciders like columnists and editorial writers and consultants and nonprofit organizations to recommend closing schools because they won the life lottery and don't live in those forlorn neighborhoods or have kids in Memphis City Schools.

But it's another thing for someone like Johnnie Watson, who was an assistant superintendent decider a long time ago when a bunch of schools were closed and some people with long memories never got over it, including Watson himself. Or Carol Johnson, who sort of recommended closing some schools but more than offset any savings by recommending building new schools and rebuilding some old ones and turning the "closed" ones into community centers ... and then she moved to Boston.

If you are a school board decider you won't be one for long if you decide to support closing a school, especially if it is in your district. So school board deciders spend their time on things like dress codes, corporal punishment, bus routes, food service, campaigning for school board or City Council, and even academics.

But when you get right down to it, the real deciders are the teachers and principals who have to enforce the discipline policies and improve those academics. Assuming, of course, that their students decide to come to school and pay attention. Which many of them don't. So the graduation rate takes a hit even if the teachers are dedicated.

What Memphis and the school board have to decide in the next 30 days is whether there should be a real superintendent decider or a bunch of deciders and whether, style-wise, that man or woman should be as nice as pie or rough as a cob when it comes to dealing with students who are not candidates for student council or homecoming court and teachers and principals who are not on anyone's short list.

Whether the next superintendent is Nicholas Gledich or Kriner Cash or someone else won't make much difference if he or she is not a real decider and leader with the know-how, command presence, and followers to back it up.

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