Movers & shakers

Three things Willie Herenton has to say about Memphis education today

PHOTO: Larry Robinson
Willie Herenton (at left), former Memphis City Schools superintendent and the city's first black mayor, records a podcast at LPI Studios.

Since Willie W. Herenton left the helm of the former Memphis City Schools in 1991 after 12 years as its superintendent, the city’s education landscape has changed dramatically.

No Child Left Behind Act. Race to the Top. The advent of charter schools. A historic school merger — and subsequent de-merger. The arrival of the state-run Achievement School District.

A former Memphis mayor who is now CEO of his own charter network, Herenton says the community is not supporting its public education system as much as it can or should to lift its schoolchildren out of poverty.

Herenton spoke about the challenges during a Funky Politics podcast, which aired this week. At 76, he is now the CEO of W.E B. Du Bois Consortium of Charter Schools, which operates six schools in Memphis and one in Atlanta. Four of the Memphis schools are among the state’s bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Tennessee is partnering with The Funky Politics on a podcast series exploring national education reform and its impact on Memphis.)

As Memphis’ first black mayor, Herenton is a trailblazer and also a mammoth personality in local politics. He remains a powerful figure in the city and is revered in many neighborhoods. Born in 1940, he also is the product of a racially segregated school system, where books were often hand-me-downs from white schools in the city.

Here are three things Herenton had to say about the state of Memphis education today:

1. Charter schools are not anti-traditional schools.

As a charter school operator, Herenton said freedoms afforded to charter schools bolster efforts to close achievement gaps between poor and affluent white, black and Hispanic students. That goal has yet to be realized.

“There is a direct correlation between economic status and academic achievement. That has not been broken,” he said.

Still, Herenton said taxpayer money siphoned off from school districts to charter schools should not be held to the same scrutiny as money allocated to private schools if vouchers were to pass in Tennessee.

“There’s a prevailing belief that charter schools take away funds from public schools,” he said. “It’s exercising the right of a parent to send their child to any school they want to send them and the funds will follow the child. … Charter schools were designed to give parents more options in the marketplace.”

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Willie Herenton

2. A good education is important, but is only part of the equation to break students out of poverty.

“Back in the old days, we had a burning desire for education. We just believed education was the passport out of … the slums,” Herenton said. “It produced a lot of us who were first-generation college graduates. I was a first-generation college graduate.”

Now, he said, wraparound services such as health, mental health and community development are necessary to help.

“What I’m finding out now is how many African-American families engage in a holistic kind of way to break the cycle of poverty. How do we create more opportunities for African-American kids who may be in impoverished conditions — who may, like me, not have a father in the home? How do we get them to break out of the poverty cycle so that they get to college, so their children (can)?” he asked.

In recent years, Herenton has aimed those questions toward the intersection of education and juvenile justice systems. In June, Shelby County’s governing body endorsed Herenton’s plan for a juvenile rehabilitation facility in the city’s Frayser community to provide medical and mental health care and educational and vocational training.

Herenton opened a school with a similar mission in 2013 but had to abruptly close it a few weeks later. He said not enough students were being redirected from the juvenile justice system.

3. Re-engaging the black middle and upper class is crucial to the success of public education.

After school integration efforts and the steady population shift of wealthy black and white families to the suburbs, the city’s black community lost power, Herenton said. To reverse that trend, black people who are more affluent must actively provide opportunities to others seeking to break the cycle of poverty.

“Now, some brothers and sisters that get in the middle class and make six digits, they become oblivious of their past and history. They forget why, how they got there, and what they were supposed to do when they get there,” he said.

Herenton said he was criticized for intentionally providing opportunities to African-Americans during his political career. But he insists that black people in positions of power must provide those opportunities.

“My purpose was to educate but to empower people who had been left out. … People don’t do that now as a mission,” he said. “That was what I was supposed to do: create opportunity for my people.”

moving on

Jeffco school board votes to launch search for new superintendent

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post
JeffCo Public Schools Superintendent Dan McMinimee, at his office, in 2014 during his second week on the job.

Citing a desire to seek out a more effective leader and denying that politics were at play, Jefferson County school board members voted unanimously Thursday to launch a search for a new superintendent.

The vote comes a little more than a year after all five board members were sworn in after a contentious recall election that ousted the members that hired current superintendent Dan McMinimee.

The governing board of the state’s second largest school district expressed its desire to let McMinimee serve out the six months left on his contract.

Last month, the board met twice in executive session, including once at a conference in Colorado Springs, to talk about whether to renew McMinimee’s contract.

Board members on Thursday each made statements, some reading prepared remarks, before the vote. The board members, seeking to address the community, denied that any decision was made behind closed doors, outlined what they value in a leader and insisted their decision was not political.

“It’s true we’ve been through difficulties, but children in our schools can’t afford for adults to just let things settle,” said board member Brad Rupert. “We’ve got problems to solve.”

Board members said they needed to see if there was another leader who might be more effective. In outlining their desires for qualities of a new leader, they talked about looking for someone with experience as an educator, who is inspiring and a good communicator.

Board member Susan Harmon said she struggled with the decision but pointed out that although McMinimee has done good work, some people still don’t trust him or the district.

“How do you shake distrust? How do you change perception?” Harmon asked. “Perception unfortunately matters.”

After the vote, a district spokeswoman said McMinimee had signed up to speak during a public comment period near the meeting’s end. But he did not take the microphone. McMinimee left the meeting without speaking with reporters.

Of seven people who spoke about the superintendent during public comment, four were against launching a search for a new superintendent. Three who spoke in support of a new superintendent said it was not based on McMinimee’s performance, but based on the original process in which he was hired.

One woman who supported the search for a new superintendent, said she “condemned” the past process in 2014 because she said it was “predetermined.”

One speaker, Jim Fernald, who supported retaining McMinimee, said McMinimee succeeded despite being put in an “impossible situation,” and said that justifying looking for a new leader because of a search process three years ago is not appropriate.

“I find this to be an incredibly weak argument,” Fernald said. “Everyone knows if you vote against retaining Dan that you’re doing it to spite the previous board and their supporters. This board should go on record as rising above the pettiness.”

John Ford, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers union, spoke in favor of launching a search for a new superintendent, saying that the process that led to McMinimee’s hiring was “one of the failures of the previous board.”

“We need a fair and open process,” Ford said. “JCEA looks forward to ensuring and entrusting you with that mission. Listen to the voice of the classroom teacher to help provide input for what our students deserve.”

McMinimee, who was the sole finalist for the job, was hired in the summer of 2014 by a board majority made up of the three members that were the target of a recall in 2015. During his time leading the district, McMinimee, among other things, has helped lead the work on the district’s new strategic plan, reorganized two groups of schools on the district’s eastern boundary and increased school level autonomy over budgets.

On Wednesday McMinimee told Chalkbeat he was puzzled about why the board was considering looking for a new superintendent, saying he had not been given any indication that they had a problem with his work.

He did not speak during the board discussion Thursday.

According to McMinimee’s contract language, the board will not need a separate vote to end his $220,000-a-year contract. If McMinimee doesn’t receive notification of a contract renewal by the end of March, the contract will automatically expire June 30.

If the board wanted to part ways with McMinimee before his contract expires without attempting to fire him with cause, the district would need to pay him the amount of one year’s base salary, according to his contract. If the superintendent wants to terminate the contract, he would have to give the board six months notice or be charged for damages.

The board directed the human resources chief to find a search firm that will create a process that allows for community input in the search process.

The new district leader will face the challenge of the district’s budget after county voters rejected two tax measures in November.

Three of five Jeffco school board members are up for re-election in November, meaning it’s possible the board majority might change again after that election.

Pondering performance

His job on the line, Jeffco superintendent says he’s been given no hint of problems

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Dan McMinimee at a meeting with Jeffco parents, teachers, and community members after being named finalist for the Jeffco superintendent job.

Controversy surrounded Dan McMinimee’s summer 2014 hiring as superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district.

Some worried he was inexperienced, that he would be paid too much and that he would bring many of the conservative, market-based reforms of the Douglas County school district, where he previously worked.

Yet while working under two completely different school boards in less than three years — one that hired him and one that took over after a heated recall campaign — McMinimee has focused on his district work and gotten things done, various people agree.

That may not be enough to save his job.

The Jeffco school board is scheduled to vote Thursday night on launching a search for a new superintendent, in effect telling McMinimee he will no longer be needed after his contract expires at the end of June.

The school board’s discussion about McMinimee — which included two closed-door meetings — didn’t start over concerns with McMinimee’s performance, said Ron Mitchell, chairman of the school board. He declined to say what did prompt the talks.

“I think there are a lot of things Dan McMinimee has done for Jeffco schools and has done well,” Mitchell said. “The politics of Jeffco have been challenging. I honestly believe that Dan worked hard to serve the current board.”

That’s what’s puzzling, McMinimee told Chalkbeat Wednesday afternoon.

“There’s been no indication that there was a problem,” McMinimee said. “There’s been a big change in the climate since I arrived. I thought we were moving forward.”

In his time as superintendent, McMinimee has helped Jeffco create a new strategic vision, increased the number of college classes high school students take and moved the district to a student-based budget system that gave principals more control over how to spend money in their schools. His team has reformed the way teachers get paid — twice — and helped negotiate a longer contract for teachers.

The district’s teachers union — which vehemently opposed the the board members who hired McMinimee — did not respond to a request for a comment about McMinimee’s work or potential departure.

It’s not uncommon for districts to change superintendents often — or for newly elected school boards to want their own person in the job.

Most superintendents tend to stay in their roles for about three years, and in some years as many of 25 percent of Colorado’s school districts are searching for new superintendents, said Mark DeVoti, assistant executive director for the Colorado Association of School Boards. School board turnover is one of many factors that plays into that, he said.

Leonor Lucero, a mother of two Jeffco students, said she’s disappointed the board is considering breaking ties with McMinimee.

“Dan has worked well with both boards,” said Lucero, who opposed the recall of conservative school board members who hired McMinimee. “He’s not controversial. He’s working with them not against them.”

She said she wishes the board would keep McMinimee to give the district some stability needed after district setbacks including when voters in November turned down the school district’s two ballot measures asking for tax increases.

“The school district has gone through a lot,” Lucero said. “We’ve had a recall, a whole new school board starting from scratch, the failing of the 3A and 3B ballot measures… and there’s a new election coming up. I think they should just let Jeffco settle.”

The board finalized an evaluation in September used to determine if McMinimee was eligible for up to $40,000 in bonuses tied to district goals. The board found McMinimee helped the district reach more than half of the goals, including raising scores on state tests and on the ACT test, and creating school accountability teams at every district school.

McMinimee received the lowest scores of partially effective on three out of the 12 goals including one related to creating a new charter school application process, and for mixed results increasing the number of third-graders meeting or exceeding expectations in reading. Based on the review, McMinimee received $20,000 in performance pay.

Yet the board was not entirely pleased with McMinimee’s a draft of his suggested goals late last year, asking for more goals that can be tied data, and suggesting some goals sounded more like job expectations and not additional goals for bonuses.

 

One of McMinimee’s bigger reforms in Jeffco involved turning two high schools into seventh through 12th grade schools in a reconfiguration of two boundary areas on the eastern side of the district where a larger number of students are low-income and English language learners.

Joel Newton, executive director of the Edgewater Collective, which is working with schools that have been affected by those changes, also said he’s happy with McMinimee’s work.

“I have been very impressed by his leadership skills in our area specifically and in our efforts,” Newton said. “He’s been very focused on student achievement and building bridges. He’s been very visible in our area.”

McMinimee’s contract will expire June 30 unless the board notifies him of an extension by March 31.

Asked if he expects to serve the remainder of his contract, McMinimee said it’s up to the board for now.

“It’s a hard position to be in when you’re no longer focused on the future,” McMinimee said. “When a CEO is removed from a major company or a head coach is removed from a team, they don’t stay around for spring practice or for the next six months.”

The work in the months ahead includes budgeting, including finding ways to raise teacher salaries for negotiation discussions and making cuts after the loss of the school tax measures, hiring of principals and district staff as well as adjusting programs for next year.

The challenge in Jeffco has also been trying to bridge a community that was divided by a divisive recall election. But it’s a large geographic area with too many people who may never completely agree on the district’s philosophy, McMinimee said.

“For me if we could all get to the point of focusing on student achievement and opportunity, that would be the goal,” McMinimee said. “I still think we’re a ways from that, and I’m not sure that one person is responsible for that.”

This story has been updated to include updated data provided by Mark DeVoti about the average time superintendents stay in their role.