This interview with Germantown Superintendent Jason Manuel is the sixth in a series of interviews with the district leaders in Shelby County. The superintendents talked about their careers in education, preparations to get ready for school and future plans for the districts. To read the other interviews, click here: Arlington  Millington  Collierville   Bartlett   Lakeland

After starting his career teaching country singer Dolly Parton’s nieces and nephews, Jason Manuel has risen to become Germantown Municipal School’s first superintendent. In this interview he explains why Germantown thinks of itself as exceptional and sometimes appears to be less cooperative than the other municipal districts. Recently, a Germantown board member described her district as the “battered wife” to Collierville after the two districts couldn’t come to terms on a transportation contract.
One of Manuel’s biggest challenges has been learning to deal with the number of different people who have to be heard, including parents and politicians. If he doesn’t check his email in the morning, he’ll have 150 people waiting for him at lunch because 4,000 parents have 4,000 different ideas about what the schools should look like, he said. For example, on the day Chalkbeat interviewed him, he was fielding complaints about a wrestling sports team’s shirt with a phrase students love but that has the words “God” and “gangs” in it.

After teaching Parton’s nieces and nephews but before his dream job teaching Biology at Houston High School, Manuel taught horticulture.  “We were doing French drain systems at the soccer field. It was a whole different ball game than I was used to…. I was like 21 years old trying to figure out what I was doing.”

Manuel says that if the municipal districts had a year longer, the days leading up to the first day of school would’ve gone smoother. They’ve struggled to transfer all the student and employee data into their software in time and were forced to outsource their bussing. “We really just had one choice: Shelby County Schools has the fleet of buses and you can’t just go to a car lot to buy a bus and say, ‘Hey I need 35 buses for my students.’”

Although Germantown wants to make separate decisions from the other municipal districts, Manuel said his district can save money by sharing some services. “We want to be different. We want to do what’s right for Germantown, not necessarily for Bartlett or Collierville.”

Houston High School will always draw students from outside Germantown and will measure itself by the best schools in the nation, rather than by other districts in Shelby County, according to Manuel. “Now that we get to decide things for ourselves and not what’s best for the greater good of all of Shelby County Schools, some things are going to be different and some things are going to be more focused.”

One of the reasons that Germantown has appeared at times to be going it alone, according to Manuel, is that its members had to deal with the loss of its three namesake schools — Germantown High School, Germantown Middle School and Germantown Elementary School –when Shelby County Schools decided to retain them. Shelby County Schools board members said the majority of the schools’ students at the schools lived within Memphis boundaries so it would make sense for the district to operate the schools.  “We have a lot of hurt that we’re going to have to heal here,” Manuel said. “Those parents feel like something has been stolen from them.”

Manuel has a long list of ways Germantown has begun to differentiate itself from the other districts. “If I want my child to do six weeks of pottery or archery or tennis or golf, there will be a menu of different courses that they can take…”