Somewhere around the time he underwent his first trial by fire – presenting the school system’s budget to the Shelby County Commission for approval – Dorsey Hopson began rethinking whether he was interested in being the superintendent of the consolidated school system on a long-term basis.
“I truly haven’t had time to think about it,” Hopson said at a July 2 press conference to mark the July 1 formal start of the merger.
That was a different answer than the one he had given over the previous five months when asked if he wanted the interim job on some kind of permanent basis. Then Hopson had always been quick to say he wasn’t interested.
“I think that at this particular moment what this situation needed was some strong leadership and I think that I’ve done my best to provide that,” Hopson said in July. “Once we get where we need to be, then I think the board will decide what the next step is.”
The school board did that Tuesday, Sept. 3, in its first meeting as a seven-member body with one vacancy on the board to be filled next week by the Shelby County Commission.
The school board authorized board chairman Billy Orgel to enter into negotiations of contract terms with Hopson. Attorneys for each side will be involved in the private negotiations whose terms will be made public once an agreement is reached and taken to the school board for approval in an open meeting. Key to the terms will be the length of the contract, which could indicate how long the board and Hopson believe the move to stability for the new school district will take.
The decision is one of the most basic and important for any school board. Generations of school board members in Memphis and Shelby County have been introduced to the ground rules of service on an elected school board with the saying, “The board hires only one employee – the superintendent.”
With the saying comes a search process that is as much cautionary tale as a compilation of best practices.
In one of its first decisions, the smaller countywide school board has sidestepped that process that sometimes groans under the weight of political axioms designed to avoid past mistakes.
The school board permanently ended a national search that had been in limbo almost as soon as it was started. PROACT Search, the Wilmette, Ill., search firm hired by the school board in December, didn’t get too far into its work before it advised the board that its timeline of having a superintendent in place by February wouldn’t work.
By February, PROACT pushed the target hire date to late May as the merger date got closer. PROACT executives told the school board in May they recommended suspending the national search because of the uniqueness of the merger, the uncertainty surrounding it and the difficulty that posed in getting the best applicants for the job.
The school board suspended the search and all payments to PROACT.
Hopson, a Memphis native, returned to the city in 2008 as general counsel to Memphis City Schools. His rise to superintendent following the resignation of Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash in January and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken in March was a surprise but not one for which Hopson felt unprepared.
At the time, Hopson said he had no interest in applying for the job on a permanent basis. He also said his interim status gave him the ability to make controversial decisions quicker without worrying about how it might affect his long-term status as the school board’s only hire.
His first decision of that kind was to move in April to start the process for closing 13 schools in the 2014-2015 school year including three high schools.
“What do you call a superintendent who closes schools?” school board member Kevin Woods joked shortly after Hopson outlined the plan for the school closings. “You call him a past superintendent.”
As the first fiscal year began on July 1 followed a month later by the first day of classes, Hopson began to talk of more long-range plans. He also said the unification of schools would continue to unfold well into the first year and beyond requiring decisions now.
Leaders of Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities are expected to separate from the merged school system and form their own separate school districts in the second school year of the reformation of public education in Shelby County.
Hopson has said he wants the Shelby County Schools system to position itself to provide services to those school districts as well as charter schools and state-run Achievement School District schools. He has also talked of how the suburban school systems might impact budget decisions and other decisions like school closings for the consolidated school system that remains – basically the old Memphis City Schools territory and the unincorporated county outside Memphis.
“This is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Hopson said Tuesday evening in his first very limited comments on a job that continues to change.