It didn't take long for the newly installed Orleans Parish School Board to deconstruct popular public schools Superintendent Tony Amato. Board members had plenty of help, mostly from Amato himself. Now, school board members better watch out -- they're the only ones left in the crosshairs.
Amato's downfall after the heady days of last summer might seem precipitous, but the truth is he was never very good at management or finances -- and a CEO ought to be good at both. At a minimum, an effective CEO must recognize and recruit good financial people, and all CEOs must be able to manage their company's managers. Several people who have been quietly concerned about Amato (and I underscore quietly) warned me of his deficiencies in those areas as early as last June. Turns out they were right.
But, back then, the public was squarely behind Amato -- and for all the right reasons. He recognized that the system was broken academically, and he poured his energies into improving what went on in the classrooms.
Even that required stepping on some toes, however. Amato understood that some of the system's vendors were providing defective or unnecessary products and services at inflated prices, and he moved to get rid of them. That upset some politically entrenched school board members, who wanted to continue rewarding their cronies and campaign contributors.
Early last summer, a majority of the board conspired to fire Amato. The public became irate, and two pro-Amato school board members successfully sued to protect his job until a new board could be elected. At the same time, lawmakers hastily passed Act 193, which transferred most of the school board's authority (or presumed authority) to Amato, making him a virtual czar of the $600-million-a-year system. Last fall, voters duly tossed the anti-Amato school board members, replacing them with fresh faces who vowed cooperation and reform.
It took the new folks less than four months to run Amato out of town.
Unfortunately, Amato made that task easier. I don't know why he was so bad at financial oversight -- he had four CFOs in two years -- but I do know that there was no excuse for him using school-system employees to board up his house (while on the clock) in advance of Hurricane Ivan. Right then and there, he lost the moral high ground.
Moreover, Amato rejected repeated attempts by Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot to help straighten out the system's financial mess. Amato recognized too late that Theriot was indeed trying to help him -- but by then he had lost all grip on the system's growing financial morass. Now, as the old joke goes, the position has become so screwed up that nobody can play it.
Where do we go from here?
The new school board says give them a chance. The mayor says, in effect, burn everything to the ground and start over. It's hard to maintain any semblance of hope in the face of recent developments. Maybe we can take hope in this regard: As bad as things are, they can always get worse. If that's true, then maybe they can get better, too.
LOUISIANA'S HAPPY WARRIOR
I was saddened to learn of the passing of state Sen. John Hainkel last Friday. Hainkel had the distinction of being the only person in Louisiana history to preside over both the House and Senate during his long political career. A staunch advocate of political reform, Hainkel was Louisiana's version of the Happy Warrior. He loved a good political fight, and in spite of his silk-stocking constituency, he had great empathy for the common man. What I loved most about him was that he couldn't -- or wouldn't -- stay mad at me, no matter how much we might have disagreed about something. At times we would argue loudly for hours, but we always ended with our arms around each other's shoulders ... and a celebratory libation in the other hand. So long, John.
- Orleans Parish School Board
- Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Tony Amato poured his energies into improving what went on in classrooms. But he was never very good at management or finances.