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OK Memphis, you’re on live

The uncertainty and drama surrounding the Memphis City Schools 2011-12 year – at least the start of it – got played out on the national stage. The uncertainty and drama surrounding the Memphis City Schools 2011-12 year – at least the start of it – got played out on the national stage Wednesday.

The trigger was the school board’s Tuesday evening decision to delay the start of classes until the city makes good on money owed the schools. The fallout created headlines in multiple publications and news outlets, none more high-profile than CNN.

With Mayor A C Wharton and a parade of school board members – the Rev. Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., Stephanie Gatewood and Martavius Jones – making CNN appearances, Tuesday’s 8-1 vote again put Memphis out front of an education story. This one, however, was much less flattering than the headlines generated by Booker T. Washington earning a commencement day visit from President Barack Obama back in May.

One of the more illuminating CNN exchanges associated with the delay-school scenario featured Dr. Jeff Gardere, known widely as America’s psychologist and a sought-after expert in the field of mental health, and Steve Perry, founder of Capitol Preparatory Magnet School, author of the best-selling “Man Up” and a regular education contributor on CNN.

Gardere was asked directly about the MCS decision.

“I think it (the MCS decision) is a horrible idea, it’s a horrible message to the kids. We are telling them that we are playing politics with their education. Education should be the last bastion that should be touched and I just think that perhaps they feel in their own minds that they are being forced to take this drastic action,” said Gardere.

“I just do believe it is going to have a very deleterious affect on the minds of the children knowing that this is going on.”

Perry next was asked his thoughts on the recession and how it is impacting education reform.

“The recession has been one of the most important things to happen to public education because what it has done is shown us that we have overspent and underperformed and it has now created an opportunity where accountability can be the order of the day. It’s also presented the opportunity for governors to lead. They have been given a mandate to make certain decisions to just get it done,” said Perry.

The recession challenge has also shown that educators have a responsibility to make sure they are fiscally responsible, said Perry.

“It seems that for too long in public schools we’ve had whatever we wanted. Often as we talk about the problems of under-funding and over-expecting, we’ve had an average class size for very long of about 22 and as a result we’ve become one of the lowest performing public school systems in the world.”

Perry was asked how much of a problem is it for a school to not have its whole budget.

“It’s a problem for them (MCS) to not have their whole budget. It would be foolhardy to say that you could operate without the budget that you need,” said Perry.

“The problem is that we don’t often need the budgets that we are given. We are overspending. When you give everyone in the school a raise simply because they lived another year, then you are not being fiscally responsible. You have to give raises based upon (a) person’s ability to perform and, more importantly, the ability of the organization to pay,” Perry said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s educators or eye doctors, it doesn’t matter.”

Who really loses in a scenario such as the one pending in Memphis? That question was fielded by Gardere.

“These are kids now who see adults as playing with their future. It’s like all of us as adults who are so through with Washington, with partisan politics over the raising of the debt ceiling, we now feel that this is just a big game and we’re pawns it. The kids see the same thing,” said Gardere.

Calling Perry’s discourse “some wise words,” Gardere suggested Perry was mixing apples and oranges.

“This is not about paying for performance that is not being delivered, this is about closing down a school system because you’re owned money. And at the end of the day the ones that suffer the most are the kids that are going to have to start school late, perhaps, and then have to work through the summers,” said Gardere.

“It’s just not fair to them that the adults are playing politics – and I understand that they may have to – but that they are still playing politics with the futures of our children, with the education of our children.”

Perry got the chance to close out.

“Call it politics, or whatever you’d like to, in the end no government entity can run without money. And we are schools, and we are government entities. In order for us to be able to run effectively, we need to be able to pay people,” he said.

“Memphis public schools has a particular set of circumstances that extend beyond this conversation, not the least of which is that it already has been taken over by the county….And it’s one of the lower-performing school systems in the country,” said Perry, emphasizing that the scope of the Memphis matter was much bigger than the opportunity afforded to talk about it.

“But more importantly, we as educators have to pitch in and understand that we have a responsibility to be responsible in our spending and in our product.”

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