The Duval County Schools board began looking for a new superintendent in May. And when the seven-member board made its decision Tuesday, Sept. 25, in Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash was not chosen.
He was one of the three finalists and the only one of the three who has been a superintendent of a school system.
But the board went with Nikolai Vitti, the chief academic officer of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, to be the new leader of the school system of 125,000 students.
“I’m honest that I only have one more of these in me,” Cash told board members during a public interview session earlier in the day Tuesday, referring to a tenure as superintendent. “This could be a match. We’re all in and I’m all in if you are.”
Duval County Schools board member W.C. Gentry said Cash had given several people in the different citizen groups that talked with the three finalists “the impression that you were somewhat ambivalent about continuing as a superintendent.”
Cash responded as he did during the Memphis superintendent search in 2007 and when he returned from the process in Charlotte, N.C., earlier this year.
“You have to pace, but you have to strategically figure how much time can you give to that before you have to pass the baton,” Cash said Tuesday. “The time of the 40-year superintendent, the 20-year superintendent, the 10-year superintendent – those times are largely past. Now it is four to seven years.”
The search in Jacksonville hasn’t been a matter of Cash going to Florida while board members and his staff in Memphis continue with their work here awaiting word from Jacksonville on whether Cash would stay or go.
Cash said he had been vetted in “a fashion that is pretty unprecedented.”
“You’ve come to the city with a reporter,” he said as he also detailed conversations board members in Jacksonville have had with board members in Memphis and department head-to-department head discussions in the two cities.
“Do you want my first grandchild too?” Cash joked at one point.
“We did the same thing in every community that we did in Memphis,” Gentry told Cash.
“It didn’t feel like it,” Cash replied.
Duval County school board chairwoman Betty Burney also responded to Cash’s view of the search with no apologies.
“Yes, we were intrusive and we need to be,” she said.
One of the groups in Memphis the Duval County board talked with was leaders of education foundations in the city. One school board member described their views of Cash’s relationship with them as “mixed.”
Cash responded that there is a tension between the money the foundations give for specific purposes and the control they want for the money.
“In terms of, ‘Now you’ve put money in and should I do what you tell me to do?’ – I do push back on that,” Cash said. “It’s the mother-in-law analogy – send the money and I’ll figure out how to spend it. … Just because you give money … doesn’t then mean that you can tell us how to spend all of that and influence everything. That’s where it starts to get mixy and messy and I’m very clear about where the line is.”
Cash also said as superintendent in Jacksonville, he would pursue funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – the foundation that has funded the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative in Memphis to the tune of $90 million over six years.
Burney was one of two votes on the board for Cash and the reason was his experience as a superintendent. And she specifically cited the 15-percent drop in the city schools dropout rate since Cash became superintendent as a result that was important to her.
“I say that we cannot afford to experiment with our children,” Burney said without referring to Cash by name. “Been there, done that, lived that, tired of living that and cannot support that.”
Cash gave the board a hard sell on his status as the only one of three finalists who has been a superintendent of a school system.
Cash had also applied earlier this year to be superintendent of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, and he was a finalist for the job there as well. He withdrew from the search shortly before the board there picked another candidate.