"Are you following me?"
In his self-described "momentous" presentation of his Blueprint for School Reform to the City Council in May, Mayor Willie Herenton asked this almost as many times as he said he was not a candidate for superintendent – at least four times, by my count.
The question can be taken two ways. As an indication of his political leadership, the answer would be "42 percent of the voters in the mayoral election last year are following you," or at least they preferred Herenton to the other candidates.
In another sense, when Herenton asks a questioner "Are you following me?" he wants to know if his meaning, as well as his words, is getting through. "Do you get my drift?" would be another way of saying it. And that's a harder question to answer, because the mayor famously changes his mind quite a bit, contradicts himself as much as the rest of us, and doesn't shy from hints and innuendo.
"I am not a candidate for superintendent of Memphis City Schools." While technically correct – he did not submit an application – Herenton talked with board members and sent out a letter in March saying he heard "another call" and planned to retire as mayor in July. In the days that followed, he left no doubt that the call was to be school superintendent. His suggestion that he was speaking to the council only at the calling of council member Wanda Halbert was nonsense.
"Strategies to save $114 million over five years should be fully implemented." It's too late. The MGT of America report that is the source of this figure was written in 2003. Sixty percent of the "savings," or $69 million, would have come from closing schools or scrapping new construction. Since then, underutilized Manassas High School has been replaced with a new school. Douglass High School, which was closed when Herenton was superintendent, is being rebuilt. A new elementary school in Binghampton that MGT said was unnecessary was also built.
"This is not the day to indulge in speculation about the next superintendent." More nonsense. Two hours after Herenton finished his speech, the school board received the names of the five superintendent finalists from its search firm. Speculation was the order of the day.
"It is not my intention for my comments to be interpreted as criticism of any other elected official or person." A half hour later he told council members he had a feeling "the system was getting itself in trouble" during the tenure of former superintendent Gerry House and "this is a man's job." That's one man's opinion. House, former superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson, and the two female finalists in the current search would disagree. A blueprint without the right leadership is nothing. Herenton should name names and give his personal criticisms.
"The organizational structure of the district is top heavy." Seconds after Herenton said this, school board member Jeff Warren, who was in the audience, whipped out a calculator, tapped in some numbers, and told a reporter that administrative costs are less than 2 percent of the budget.
"We are throwing money away to operate schools whose capacity is not even 60 percent." Names, please? The high schools that graduated fewer than 105 students in 2007 are Carver, Frayser, Manassas, Oakhaven, Southside, Treadwell, Westside, and West-wood. If Herenton thinks some of them should be closed he must say so.
"We need to target code enforcement efforts to remove blighted properties around city schools." So do it. You've had 16 years. Blight removal is the responsibility of the city, not the schools.
"I beg you not to remove that $93 million." City Councilman Harold Collins asked the mayor why members should approve an extra $93 million city appropriation for "bloated" schools. Wait a year, the mayor pleaded. But for council members and their constituents facing a big property tax hike, every year is next year.
"A month ago I was probably in a different mood about this." Now he tells us. And a few months before that when he ran for reelection, he was in a different mood about being mayor. What will his mood be a month from now? What is his calling? We are not following you, mayor.