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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Jax superintendent candidate Kriner Cash lauded and criticized

From the Charlotte Observor, by By Andrew Dunn

There’s no doubt that Kriner Cash, superintendent of Memphis City Schools, is strong-willed and reform-minded.

He has brought in tens of millions in grant money. And he has been making some academic progress in the historically poor-performing district since taking the job in 2008.

But the urban school district’s polarizing merger with suburban Shelby County schools means he would bring some baggage with him to North Carolina, should he be selected Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ superintendent.

Supporters say he has modernized the Memphis district’s business operations, improved graduation rates, initiated groundbreaking management policies and kept money in the classroom despite budget cuts. But others note that progress has been slow, and question his handling of recent controversies.

“Dr. Cash has come in with some extraordinarily ambitious goals. ... And he certainly has some great successes,” school board member David Pickler said. “Unfortunately, there has not been the level of actual change exhibited.”

Cash’s candidacy comes as his future in Memphis is uncertain. A year ago, the Memphis City Schools board extended Cash’s contract through August 2013, when the consolidation is expected to finish.

At the time, he made it clear that he would not stay with the district if he weren’t chosen for the top job.

“I cannot report to anybody,” Cash said, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Cash did not return a phone message seeking comment.

‘New day’ in Memphis

Cash was the Memphis board’s unanimous choice to lead the district, which is 92 percent minority students, and he brought with him a reform agenda based on best-practices management and data.

“A new day is dawning for Memphis City Schools,” Cash said on his selection day, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “Starting today, the sun is going to shine for the whole world to see on the mighty bluff of Tennessee.”

He’s had some success.

The district’s graduation rate hit 73 percent in 2011, up from 62 percent two years before, and test scores have inched up as well.

Cash was also key in securing a seven-year, $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Memphis district also won $70 million in the federal Race to the Top competition.

And last May, President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Memphis’s Booker T. Washington High School after the school won a national competition for the honor.

Handling missteps

One of Cash’s signature accomplishments, however, is controversial – as are a few of his stances and his handling of a number of high-profile missteps among those who work for him.

Cash pushed for a new teacher evaluation system that draws from a model piloted in Washington, D.C., schools. It evaluates teachers on 11 areas during 15-minute observations. It’s meant to provide a more nuanced view of quality in teaching, but critics say it dampens creativity and leads to widespread firings.

A few months after Obama’s visit, Cash defended the school’s principal after it came to light that she had been suspended in 2009 for altering students’ test scores and attendance records.

Most recently, Cash’s second-in-command was forced to step down after an incident at a party to celebrate Cash’s bid for the top post in the combined school district.

During the Feb. 18 bring-your-own-beverage party, Deputy Superintendent Irving Hamer reportedly made comments about the breast size of a secretary. After an investigation, Hamer resigned, though he will be allowed to work at the district through April 30.

“There was a certain degree of tone-deafness (by Cash) I thought that exhibited,” Pickler said.

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