TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers

Finding the “right fit” superintendent for our school system will be a daunting task. There is so much at stake.  

So, what can we look forward to in our search for a new leader: drama, intrigue, suspense, and, yes, uncertainty for sure?  

Like everyone, I hope we can find a very capable person to lead our school system. But unfortunately, we have been through a gauntlet of leadership changes over the years and my hopes are at best tempered.  

I, like many others, hunger for stability in our system and a steady rise in academic achievement.  

During the last 60-plus years, over a dozen men and women have served as leaders of our public school system here in Memphis.  

During that time period, the longevity of leadership at the superintendent level, has averaged just over five years. Over the last 20-plus years, however, the average duration of Memphis Shelby County Schools superintendents has dwindled to just a little over three years.  

This is simply not enough time to turn around a complex urban school system the size and breadth of Memphis Shelby County Schools.

Since the 1980s, Dr. Willie W. Herenton, Gerry House, and Kriner Cash have been the only superintendents to have tenures of 5 or more years.  

Three of the thirteen superintendents came to the post from school systems in other parts of the country. Seven of the thirteen were interim leaders, including, of course, the district’s current Superintendent, Toni Williams. 

Almost all these individuals were allowed to bring their own version of school reform to the district. So, you can expect the same thing from the new superintendent, and the process of improving our schools will start all over again.

There is no question that managing a successful urban school system is one of the most challenging jobs on the planet.  

There are so many issues urban systems like ours have to deal with. 

The challenges that lay ahead are daunting, i.e., academic recovery from the  COVID pandemic, declining enrollment, teacher shortages, rising gun violence in our community, just to name a few.

Add to that the fact that our district is now operating without two of its top leaders. Both Dr. John Barker, Deputy Superintendent of Operations and Yolanda Martin, the district’s Chief of Human Resources are on administrative leave.  

I do not know how long the current search for a new superintendent will take; some estimates suggest it could take between 18 months and two years to find suitable candidates. Before her stint as board chairperson ended, Michelle McKissack shared the hope for new leadership in place by the end of this school year. 

I am praying that our new superintendent gets unanimous support from our school board and that their team will be able to hit the ground running.  

The search process is parked in neutral right now, waiting for new board members to get up to speed on the search process.   

School reform and improvements take time. It will take 4 to 5 years before we begin seeing improved results that can be owned by the new administration.

If the new team can show early signs of improvement, the general public and our school board will support them, I hope.  

If they struggle, you will once again hear rumblings of discontent from the usual voices of dissident in our school system.   

I am cautiously optimistic. But I have seen this movie far too many times in the past. 

Let’s pray that it ends differently this time.

(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)