At a March recruitment breakfast for business volunteers in the schools, then-Superintendent Anthony Amato was asked if it sometimes feels surreal to deal with the Orleans Parish School Board. "I left surreal behind me a long time ago," Amato shot back.
Among the issues that morning was a proposal to bring Project Grad, a program designed to increase student performance, into the system. Amato had argued previously that Project Grad actually brought its own funding. "They're nationally recognized," said Amato, shaking his head. But the board, at a meeting just two nights previous, had balked, saying that Project Grad required a commitment of funds that no one knew how, or if, New Orleans Public Schools would be able to find.
It soon emerged that the board was in danger of being asked to repay $71 million in Federal Education grants for which it could not properly account. Over the next weeks and months, news about the system's finances reinforced the position already taken by several board members: that the system could not afford to spend more money until it could figure out how much money it had.
It's a random snapshot, but that moment in time just six weeks ago portrays a fault line that finally gave way. Amato kept committing to programs with national reputations for raising student achievement. Yet at the same time, the district's financial picture kept growing more and more bleak.
By the time the board froze Amato's programs and spending at a contentious meeting last Monday -- a process that Mayor Ray Nagin later described as a "public lynching" -- a larger decision had clearly been reached not to back the superintendent. Making good on an earlier promise to leave if his reforms were threatened, the next day Amato announced his decision to step down.
Amato's zeal was for reform, but the high-stakes test he failed was Act 193. Signed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco in June, the controversial law gave Amato wide powers that included hiring and firing individuals and restructuring departments. While the old board was in power and before Act 193 became law, Amato had an excuse for the system's financial mess. But between the new board's January inauguration and last week, Amato had a window of opportunity for firing or reassigning the support staff that state legislative auditor Steve Theriot has repeatedly said lacked the skills to run the system's finances. Amato also had the opportunity to move aggressively on bringing in an outside contractor to handle the system's finances. On Monday night, the timer rang before the right answers were filled in.
Amato will soon be gone -- but many of his initiatives and programs should be allowed to advance. Scripted literacy and numeracy programs might have offended some teachers because of the programs' rigid structures, but they helped improve language and math performance among students. Signature schools galvanized interest among those students who joined them -- and frequently excited parents as well. Support from the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office, Dillard University, Delgado Community College and others flourished under Amato. Some of Amato's improvements suffered from inadequate support and funding, but his successor should be careful not to yank them away from students who have just begun to get used to new, sensible programs.
"The continued lack of stability at the leadership level not only haunts the school system but also leads to disarray and uncertainty," state Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard said last Wednesday. After nine superintendents in 11 years, that instability is a sad part of the culture at New Orleans Public Schools. Now, Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says that New Orleans may have a tough time finding someone with the right skills to fill the post. "With the recent history of the district, you don't have a very good story to tell," Houston says. The pool of qualified urban administrators has been shrinking over the last 10 years. Those who are qualified comprise, in his words, "a very small community -- and word gets around very fast."
Assurances that the state will take over the system's finances should be greeted guardedly; this is the same state that can't make promised payments to either the New Orleans Saints or to the city for expenses related to Harrah's New Orleans Casino. Meanwhile, Houston points out that it's not the job of superintendents to be financial experts -- but it is their duty to bring in the professionals who can make finances run smoothly. In the past, New Orleanians have looked for saviors for our troubled schools -- and when they reveal their flaws, we crucify them. Our next superintendent needs to be a coalition-builder, someone who can communicate and lead effectively. Yet at the same time that we search for someone to lead the team, each one of us must not balk at doing our part to restore hope and bring quality to public education. Our city's children require no less.