Cash ‘In Limbo’ While Waiting on Charlotte

By Bill Dries

When he returned to Memphis last week from Charlotte, N.C., Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash went directly to The Racquet Club of Memphis where a group of 500 was winding up a rally in support of the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative.

“What a difference a day makes,” Cash said of his day and a half touring Charlotte as one of three finalists for the job of superintendent of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.

In that time, Cash appears to have made his peace with the reform efforts he launched in 2009 starting with a simple census of how many students were overage for their grade, how many had no pre-kindergarten experience and how many had no primary care physician. And Cash has begun to talk about the move to schools consolidation turned schools reformation that he says has left the leadership of Memphis City Schools “in limbo.”

Cash said later he still feels attached and protective of the Memphis reform efforts and has some hesitancy about leaving them.

“I still do feel that this work is not finished. I’m about a year away I think from that. If the opportunity arises and all things are met, I probably will accept,” he said of the Charlotte position. “We do have very, very capable staff. I just think we’re in a limbo on the leadership and administration of the district while we’re heading toward the merger. That concerns me. It gives me a little pause in all of this.”

The merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools starts August 2013 and Cash as well as SCS superintendent John Aitken are already working with a 23-member countywide school board. The move to consolidation began in late 2010 and Cash had deep reservations about it and the impact it would have on his reform agenda.

“I love this city. I love everything we’ve done,” Cash added. “But I do feel that even if this doesn’t materialize, I’m on short time here.”

The sense of that has been building. Cash came to Memphis intent on a reform agenda and he also seemed fully aware that reform superintendents have a shorter window to put their agendas in place, stand them up and then go elsewhere when the work reaches a certain point.

Whoever is picked in Charlotte will succeed Peter Gorman, a reform-minded superintendent who was in Memphis earlier this year to speak to the schools consolidation planning commission about reform efforts there.

“Pete Gorman is a colleague and was trying to do a lot of these things with a little different roll on it,” Cash said. “They’re on not a parallel but a similar track and that’s because the whole country now is trying to gear up and anticipate the rigors of the common core state standards.”

Cash likened the introduction to Charlotte he and the two other finalists got to “astronaut training.”

He said the questions in several forums mirrored the reform discussion in Memphis where he says “the mantra started.”

Mantra is a term that speaks volumes about Cash’s shepherding of the specific reforms in TEI.

TEI is built on another of the statistics Cash began marshaling between the time he got the Memphis job and after he accepted it. Cash was alarmed that 40 percent of Memphis City Schools teachers were leaving by their third year in the system.

Even as he spoke to the group at the TEI rally, Cash found it hard to resist outlining the specific reforms in a precise way and then building from that into a set of outcomes all in a mental outline form. He’s worked the same detailed outline of his intentions countless times during his Memphis tenure.

The rest of the reform wave that wasn’t Cash’s specific creation, however, quickly followed and has been part of the crest of education reform statewide.

Under Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, the Tennessee Legislature increased the number of charter schools allowed by the state and it passed a law allowing Tennessee Valued Added Assessment System (TVAAS) to be used for teacher evaluations.

And the push in Nashville that continued into the administration of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam moved so fast that Cash would later say there was little he or other school leaders could do to slow it down.

Under Haslam, teacher tenure was moved to the fifth year of a teacher’s career instead of the third and the cap on charter schools was eliminated. Cash agreed with the first move but not the second.

Cash has strong reservations about charter schools and has complained that they are burning out new teachers while not necessarily building schools that can serve over the long haul.