Trouble In and Out of School: Beginning a Series on Superintendent Willie Herenton's Departure from the MCS 

Part One of a Series

Now that Mayor Herenton, in a few media interviews that appear to be tightly restricted as to subject, has indicated that his surprise resignation is related to a desire to serve again as schools superintendent, it is appropriate to review some facts concerning his previous service as head of the Memphis City Schools.

In at least some of those media interviews, the mayor has given the impression that, after serving successfully but more or less uneventfully for 12 years as superintendent (and 28 in MCS altogether, including stints as both teacher and principal), he voluntarily retired in order to pursue some other life options, notable among them a career in politics.

Inasmuch as media turnover in Memphis, as in most markets our size, is fairly brisk, there are few active reporters on hand who were plying their trade at the time Willie Herenton departed the school system, and such institutional memory as does exist seems to have given the mayor the benefit of the doubt concerning the circumstances of his leaving.

The facts, and they have long been documented, are that Superintendent Herenton, at a time when he was widely admired for his educational abilities and was being courted by at least three major urban school systems, saw his reputation seriously undermined locally -- first, by allegations of improper conduct from a teacher with whom he was having an affair; then, by a consultant's report suggesting that MCS was beset with serious administrative irregularities.

  • 'It would hurt his chances of becoming mayor.'

    Here, for the previously admiring and unexpecting outer world to see, was a brief item that appeared in USA Today, "the nation's newspaper," on May 7, 1989:

    MEMPHIS -- Bellevue Junior High teacher Mahnaz Bahrmand filed $3 million breach-of-contract suit against school Supt. Willie Herenton. Bahrmand claims Herenton reneged on vow to marry her because it "would hurt his chances of becoming mayor."

    That condensed paragraph was, of course, but a shred compared to the reams and reels of extensive local media coverage given the Herenton-Bahrmand relationship at the time -- including surveillance photographs of the superintendent and Bahrmand at Memphis International Airport, preparing to board a flight together.

    But here is part of an August 3, 1989 news report in the Chicago Tribune concerning that city's quest for a new school superintendent:

    The man who has headed the Memphis, Tenn., school system for 10 years has emerged as the leading candidate in the nationwide search for a new Chicago school superintendent, school sources said Wednesday.

    Willie Herenton, 49, who, according to the sources, has excellent professional credentials, is the only candidate who has publicly expressed interest in the job and is also said to be a top candidate for the vacant superintendent's position in New York City.

    What could be causing the Chicago school board to have some difficulty in making a final decision on Herenton is a controversy involving a lawsuit filed by a Memphis teacher against him. She has alleged that he beat her, forced her to have two abortions and made promises of promotions that were not kept.

    Herenton has acknowledged having a personal relationship with the teacher, but otherwise denied her charges ... .

    On August 4, 1989, the next day, The New York Times, in its own report on New York's search for a new superintendent, had this to say about Herenton, whom the paper would make clear throughout its coverage that year was a leading candidate, perhaps the prime one, for the New York superintendency:

    Mr. Herenton, 49, is regarded as such a popular figure in his hometown that he is often mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate. But he is in the midst of a troublesome personal situation: a Memphis math teacher has filed a lawsuit contending that during a personal relationship, he beat her, forced her to have abortions and falsely promised to promote her. Mr. Herenton has acknowledged having a personal relationship with her, but said all the accusations were nonsense ... .

  • Frivolous accusations'

    Two days after the Times article, New York Newsday filed its own report on New York's hunt for a superintendent. Part of it went this way:

    A popular figure [in Memphis] and often mentioned as a mayoral candidate, Herenton is embroiled in a suit this summer filed by a local math teacher. She has alleged in a five-page lawsuit that during a two-year affair with Herenton, he beat her, forced her to have two abortions, caused a third pregnancy to end in a miscarriage, breached a promise to marry her and falsely promised to promote her.

    Herenton was married most of that time, and is now divorced. Although he acknowledges he had had an affair with the woman, he says he considers "her accusations, in large measure, frivolous and being used for selfish, political and personal needs."

    He turned down the Atlanta superintendency in late 1987. But he said Friday, "I am very interested in pursing the challenge of providing leadership to the largest public school system in the nation…."

    It is hard to read these vintage accounts without retroactive sympathy for Memphis' then beleaguered superintendent. There he was at the zenith of his career. As he has accurately said this week, he was being sought after by other municipalities and jurisdictions. He had turned down an offer to be Tennessee Commissioner of Education and, as the Newsday article indicates, had been offered -- and temporarily accepted -- the superintendency of the Atlanta school system.

    Indeed, what had kept Herenton in Memphis in 1987 was a series of apparently spontaneous local demonstrations beseeching him to stay.

    In a nutshell, Bahrmand's charges were a monkey wrench thrown into what had begun to seem Willie Herenton's virtually unlimited prospects for advancement as an educator. Ultimately, the New York and Chicago jobs, either of which he might have claimed under normal circumstances, went to other candidates.

    But Superintendent Herenton's problems were just beginning.

    Still to come: Local reaction to the Bahrmand affair and its complications,the suit resolved amid more charges, a bad report card for the superintendent, gridlock with the School Board, the public "settlement" and the shocking off-the-books one revealed in 1992 by the Flyer.

    To be continued ...

    Go to Part Two.

    Go to Part Three.

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