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VOL. 128 | NO. 9 | Monday, January 14, 2013

Cash’s Turbulent Tenure Full of Surprises

By Bill Dries

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Kriner Cash came to the city as Memphis City Schools superintendent in July 2008. He began with an informal census that organized the school district’s student population by how many students were overage for their grade level, how many had no primary care physician and how many had access to no pre-kindergarten services.


As he organized the school system to deal with those substantial populations, Cash mapped out a detailed reform plan for the Memphis City Schools system. And he preached an ultra-detailed message of the path to that reform over and over again.

“I heard a lot of you say across the city, ‘Good luck,’” Cash told the Memphis Rotary Club less than a month after he became superintendent. “This won’t be about luck. This is going to be about a plan that’s got to work.”

Five years later, it was clear Memphis had not been what Cash had expected coming from the position of accountability chief for the Miami-Dade school system in Florida.

He expected resistance to a detailed reform message and method he brought to Memphis just ahead of a national trend toward many of the parts of that plan. It wasn’t that Cash owned the reforms he came with. It was that he owned the way into an urban school arena inseparable from the most emotional elements in the DNA of Memphis politics.

The harder Cash pushed his reforms, the more he discovered that when they moved so did the political fabric they were attached to. And two years into his tenure forces on the other end of the cloth pulled back hard with the move to schools consolidation.

The merger movement began one night in November that year as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, were in Memphis for a reception at the National Civil Rights Museum.

It has been $90 million in funding from the foundation over multiple years that were the wind in the sails of Cash’s primary achievement – the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative.

The initiative was based on another figure Cash culled in his first portrait of the district by the numbers.

One in five Memphis City Schools teachers were quitting after a year in the classroom. After three years, 40 percent of the new hires were gone.

Cash doggedly continued the detailed work to change that and come up with a national model for teacher evaluation tied to student performance as well as better professional development. Meanwhile, the merger picked up steam and cleared the school board in December 2010.

He viewed it as a distraction calling it “junior high street fight nonsense” and “just bad politics.”

“You want to be all civil rights all of a sudden,” he said in remarks in 2010 directed at school board member Tomeka Hart, among the first to call for the merger. “These are your schools.”

He also asked for the first time what became the central question for the rest of his tenure.

“What will happen to our work?” he asked. “Are you ready to throw it away?”

He rarely attended sessions of the consolidation planning commission that mapped out recommendations for the merger.

And by October 2011, he was presenting city schools business seated next to Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken before a consolidated 23-member countywide school board. And the board later voted not to renew his contract past the merger.

Two months into life with the new school board, he and school board chairman Billy Orgel had a verbal confrontation that prompted the first private talks of a contract buyout.

“I have great sadness and hope and encouragement for what I’ve often said has become the second love of my life,” Cash said Thursday, Jan. 10, after the school board unanimously approved a severance package.

It makes him an employee in an advisory capacity through the end of July with six months of regular pay and $17,000 in moving expenses at the end of July.

Cash’s first love was his wife, who died in late 2011. Her death was unexpected for a leader who prided himself on knowing what to expect and being relentlessly on message at all times.

Cash carried the reform banner further than any of his recent predecessors in part because he has remained wary of education consultants, education foundations and charter school operators. Yet, he worked with all three groups confident that he had established who was in charge.

It was that confidence that rubbed some the wrong way and Cash was aware of that.

In recent months, some of Cash’s passion on reform had returned to full flame even as he became a finalists for two superintendent positions in other cities. And he was fully engaged in channeling his senior staff into detailed merger planning as they also tended to the day-to-day running of the school system in the here and now.

By the time of the severance package, Cash’s signature reform – the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative – was in the process of being broadened to apply to county schools as part of the merger process.

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