Thursday, September 11, 2003

Bow Down, Shut Up, Don't Look Directly At Him

When I wrote, the other day, about the surprise plan by members of the City School Board to fire every teacher and administrator at the 22 failing City schools, I forgot one powerful voice in my musings.

Well, that voice has now spoken. Memphis City Mayor His Imperial Majesty Dr. Willie "The King" Herenton, wasted little time and even less respect in coming out blasting.

Predictably, he made his announcement in front of the Memphis teacher's union building, surrounded by union officials and workers, teachers and local politicians. Those who didn't see this on television missed the spectacle of the puffed-up little City Councilman Rickey Peete standing next to the Mayor like a fight coach just before the big match. (Those of you from outta town: Peete was formerly a councilman who was caught on tape taking a bribe at the Shoney's that used to be down the street from here. He was tried and convicted and served his time. Then, he ran again and was re-elected! Yeah, we can really pick 'em here in Memphis).

Herenton has had it in for the City School Board for a while. In some respects, he's right. It is a too-political board that's more about things other than the education of city youth. But his real animus is a desire for direct control. He wants to appoint the Board, to make them more "professional," in his words. Given the make-up of other boards around town, and we have a lot, like kudzu on the landscape, that's code for "my political elite buddies." Boards tend to be dominated by the usual suspects, earning their hefty paychecks and slapping each others' backs, with a sprinkling of hard-working, knowledgeable heavy lifters from the bowels of government bureaucracy.

Don't forget, too, the Gerry House phenomenon. While she served as the former City Schools Superintendent, House instituted a city-wide collection of curriculum experiments. She collected a lot of awards for that; enough that she got a job at a New York think-tank and left town. Her award-winning program, unfortunately, proved completely inappropriate for a city where students move from school to school on a regular basis, as their low-income parents move around. It proved a disaster of spectacular proportions and was, in high degree, part of why we have so many failing schools. But education experts love her and still hold her in high regard. What did she think? We don't know. She never spoke to the press. Ever.

Herenton didn't do anything about her while she was here and that leads me to worry about him having direct control of the School Board. His whole Mayoral style is very imperial and high-handed. He tends to speak of himself in the royal "we." He is abruptly dismissive of critics, charging them with being interfering and lacking knowledge. Everything tends to happen behind closed doors until they are sprung on a city he expects to fall over with praise and acceptance. It wins him few friends.

His stunt with the teacher's union won him something far more tangible. He's furthered the chasm between those who want real change and those who want their well-paid and -perked status quo. He's deepened the trenches and poured the poison gas.

He's standing in the way for his own political gain. He's scum.

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