School & District Management

Probes Raise Concerns About Direction of Memphis School District

By Catherine Gewertz — December 28, 2007 7 min read
An audit of the district’s nutrition center revealed that too much food had been ordered and stored improperly. Nearly 243 tons of spoiled food were dumped.

The Memphis, Tenn., school district is trying to steady itself in the wake of controversies that have rocked its operations side, potentially complicating its search for a new superintendent and renewing talk about putting the city’s mayor in charge of the system.

In the past few months, the district has been contending with official probes of how school construction contracts were won and how the food-services division was managed, and with mounting questions about lucrative, no-bid contracts awarded to busing companies.

The questions appear to have reignited intermittent conversations about whether the mayor should have expanded authority over the schools, whether school board members should be appointed instead of elected, and whether the city school system should be merged with the county’s.

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton, who served as the city’s superintendent for 12 years, and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton said they have been talking about those possibilities more often. Mr. Herenton said he and Mr. Wharton hoped to meet with Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen on the issue. Bob Corney, a spokesman for Mr. Bredesen, said the governor has spoken with both mayors about the issues, and is open to meeting jointly with them.

“Increasingly in the city of Memphis, high-level government officials … have become so disturbed with the deficiencies in the operations of the Memphis public schools that now the climate will produce some debate about changing the governance structure,” Mr. Herenton said in a recent interview.

For his part, Mr. Wharton said he believes that allowing the city’s mayor greater authority over the schools would benefit the system, especially in attracting a superintendent to replace Carol R. Johnson, who left in August to become the schools chief in Boston.

“We’ve got to be able to say, ‘You are going to have the support you need, the resources you need, carte blanche when it comes to designing the plays, and, by George, we’ve got your back,’ ” he said. “We haven’t done that here. The best way to do that is to break completely out of the mold and have someone such as the city mayor in charge.”

Grand Jury Probe

A federal grand jury is investigating contracts issued between 2000 and 2004 for more than a dozen construction projects.

In October, the panel heard testimony from several current or former school board members, and subpoenaed stacks of district documents, including e-mails, requests for proposals, bidders’ responses, and minutes of meetings.

In November, the grand jury indicted a former Shelby County commissioner who allegedly claimed to control votes on the city school board and allegedly accepted $263,000 to help a construction company win a $46.7 million contract to build three schools. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of extortion and fraud. Shelby County, in which the city of Memphis is situated, runs its own school system and helps fund Memphis city schools. But its commissioners do not have authority over the Memphis city district’s school board.

As questions swirled about Memphis school construction projects, an internal audit found that the director of the district’s Central Nutrition Center had wasted $3.6 million in 15 months by over-ordering and then dumping 243 tons of spoiled beef patties, chicken nuggets, and other food, and buying expensive furniture and satellite television for the department’s offices.

The director, James Jordan, resigned in October, but the Tennessee state comptroller’s office, at the request of the Shelby County district attorney’s office, is investigating possible criminal violations at the nutrition center.

Mr. Jordan, who is white, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging the department’s black employees sabotaged him.

And, after a study showed that Memphis was paying two to three times as much for bus transportation as several other large districts in Tennessee, district leaders are examining how contracts get awarded or extended.

Among the questions are how one local company got a multimillion-dollar contract extension in 2002 without school board approval, and why it was suddenly dropped from most of its routes three days before this school year began.

Thomas E. Glass, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Memphis, said the questions about district operations could prove daunting to superintendent candidates.

“The board is well aware they have to clean up the management mess,” he said. “To bring in a new superintendent and expect that person to clean it up and also improve test scores is not reasonable.”

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 66 of the country’s large urban school districts, disagreed.

The district is “obviously in transition” after the departure of Ms. Johnson, he said, but it saw significant academic and fiscal improvements during her four-year tenure, and claims a prominent place on the national education scene.

“Memphis will be an attractive option for lots of good candidates,” Mr. Casserly said. “Nobody comes into these jobs thinking that everything is fixed before they get there.”

Better Controls

Dan Ward, who became the 115,000-student district’s interim superintendent in August, said he had hoped to serve in that role only until February, but is willing to stay longer to facilitate the search for his replacement. He was a teacher and administrator in the district for 34 years, and later served as deputy superintendent to Ms. Johnson during her first year. Lapses in district operations, such as those in food services, happened because “it was obvious the oversight wasn’t what it needed to be,” but building better controls into the system should set things right again, he said.

Late in November, Mr. Ward revamped the administrative structure, making more department heads—including the chief financial officer—report directly to him, and creating a new position that will oversee all district contracts.

School board President Patrice J. Robinson said the nine-member panel hopes to have a permanent superintendent in place in time for the 2008-09 school year. She hopes the board will put a top priority on hiring a candidate with strong management skills.

“Many times, leaders come from the classroom,” Ms. Robinson said. “You do need a little business training. These are major corporate accounts we’re trying to manage.”

Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., who joined the school board one year ago, said that under Ms. Johnson, “administrative operations were allowed to flounder, at best.”

“Our system is in a state of crisis,” he said. “We are going to have to go through a drastic overhaul of education in Memphis.”

Stephanie W. Gatewood, a board member for four years, does not think the district is in such dire straits.

She said it is in good academic standing under its state accountability system, and its fiscal operations are on a stronger footing. But she said the district must do a better job of ensuring that employees know district policy, and that proper safeguards are in place to catch violations more quickly.

Ms. Johnson, now the superintendent of the 57,000-student Boston schools, defended the Memphis district’s management during her tenure. She noted that more and more students were scoring at or above the proficient level on state tests even as she cut tens of millions of dollars from the budget, making the district’s fiscal operations more efficient.

“The performance of students, the investments in students and their success, is the primary thing I’m most proud of,” she said in a recent interview. “I acknowledge that when you’re hiring 16,500 people, you can make a hiring mistake that results in some unfortunate thing happening. [But] I’m proud of my record, of my fiscal management.”

Ethele S. Hilliard, the president of Partners in Public Education, a local fund built by corporate and philanthropic groups, said the controversies about district operations, which have peppered the headlines of the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper for months, “clearly are a distraction” from its focus on good schooling.

“It makes it a challenge to bring in private-sector dollars and innovation and reform initiatives,” she said. “It’s cause for pause. We have had some reluctance.”

She credits Mr. Ward for taking steps to rebuild confidence in the system by reorganizing its lines of authority.

As trying as Memphis’ situation might be, it can also serve as a valuable catalyst for rethinking improved district operations and strategies, said Vivian G. Morris, the assistant dean for faculty and staff development at the University of Memphis’ college of education.

“It creates a crisis, but it also creates opportunity,” she said, “in that it compels the community and the people who work for the district and for our state to take a long look at what our practices and expectations are, and say, ‘Lets do a better job of monitoring it and staying on course.’ ”

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