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The Challenge of Leading When Governance is 'Diffused'

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Montgomery County, Md., has a national reputation for good public schools, a high degree of involvement on the part of its well-educated and outspoken citizenry, and racial tolerance. It was one of the first school districts in the country, and remains the largest, to have adopted an integration plan without pressure from the federal government or the courts. One of the nation's 20 largest school districts, it enrolls nearly 100,000 students and has an annual budget of over $350 million.

In the past few years, this once-homogeneous, wealthy Washington suburb, like other big cities' suburbs, has changed. Enrollment has declined, necessitating school closings, and in the past five years the proportion of minority-group students in the system has risen from 12 percent to 25 percent of total enrollment.

The Montgomery County system's mode of governance has changed as well. In the past year, after the school board overruled Superintendent J. Edward Andrews's school-closing plan and instead decided on a different list of school closings and boundary changes, parents and civil-rights advocates took the case to court and to the Maryland State Board of Education. The state board, for the first time in its history, reversed one of the school-closing decisions on the grounds that it would have a disparate impact on minority students. The Montgomery board has appealed that decision in court.

After 26 years in the system, beginning as an English teacher, Superintendent Andrews announced this fall that he was resigning, effective next summer. Mr. Andrews spoke recently with Peggy Caldwell about the difficulties of running a large, rapidly changing school system in an era of what he calls "diffused governance."


QYou've been running one of the larger school districts in the country, with an activist board and an activist community. Recently, you've had the state board and the courts in on the operation of the system as well. What's happened to the authority of boards and superintendents?


AGovernance has been diffused somewhat, obviously. I don't think that's bad. The closest thing to democracy in action is a local board of education in the situation that we had here in Montgomery County. My own personal problem with that aside, [the difficulty with it] is the time it takes to deal with it, to work with it, and it's something that I choose not to continue doing.

I wouldn't dare ever try to tamper with it or change it. It's the strength of this community, it's the strength of the country. We have a school board that's elected. They listen to people; they don't always agree with them, and the people don't always agree with my recommendations. The people can and do appeal to the state board. There's a very fine process for that.

In the school-closure issue, they upheld the [local] board in every one of the 30 closings except one, and they went against the board on that one. That didn't happen to be a closing that we had recommended. Frankly, we agreed with the state board. And beyond that, there's possible litigation ... but at least there's a very clear, measured, democratic way of dealing with involvement and dissent. And it's exciting.


QDo you think the courts have any part in such matters as school closings?


AWell, I don't think so. I think that's pretty much left to local boards and the state board of education, and should be. Where there are alleged constitutional violations, such as in the racial-segregation aspects of school closures and student-assignment patterns, I think the courts have a legitimate role to review in those areas. What the court, it seems to me, has to watch is that people aren't using that as a way to get into court, and I think the judges that we have dealt with have been very sensitive to that. But absent some kind of constitutional issue, I think the courts ought not to be in school closings, and in fact, they really aren't.


QWhat about the role in the state board? It seems that over the last 10 to 20 years, in part because of the way federal programs are administered and in part because of changes in school finance, there has been a gradual shift of power toward states.


AI can't speak for other states, because I'm not familiar with their governance situations, but in Maryland, it's just simply been a delegation. In the Maryland constitution, education is a state function.

The Montgomery County school system or school superintendent is not a part of Montgomery County government. We are different than the county health department or the county police department or the fire department or county government in general. We are part of a state system, a uniform system, of free public education. And as such, the power the local school board has is delegated from and by the state board of education. The state board of education, under the constitution of Maryland and the state statutes that have been developed based on that constitution, the state board has control of public education in the state of Maryland. They have by statute and by bylaw and by practice delegated to local boards of education a good deal of authority in the day-to-day running of the schools.

But the state board has what the law calls a broad visitorial power where they can overturn on review any decision any superintendent or any local board of education makes. ... Without much question, and the courts have consistently upheld this, the state board of education has a meaningful and proper and totally authoritative role in the governance of public education.


QDo you think that's philosophically and administratively workable?


AYes, I believe it is. And I believe it also provides, again, in a democratic fashion, an opportunity for citizens or parents who are unhappy with local decisions to have a fair hearing in a due-process way of appealing or asking for review of a board's decision or a local superintendent's decision. Obviously, there are those in our business and profession who would prefer that their decisions be final. It would make things easier in certain ways. But it wouldn't make things better.

If you believe in democracy, you believe that people who are in jobs like mine or who are on local boards or even state boards are serving the people who put them there, and their job is to do the best they can for the students, and everybody knows that lots of times there're matters of judgment. There's no correct answer or incorrect answer. It's a judgment. And if the citizens disagree with that judgment, there's a systematic, fair, reasonable, measured way to get that decision reviewed.


QThere are those who would say that state boards of education and particularly courts are so far removed from local concerns that they're not in a position to make decisions in the best interests of local people.


AI'm sure there are people who would say that, and I'm sure at times decisions either by state boards or by courts seem to others to have been made in that vein. I'm sure by the same token that when I make decisions--and we have almost 200 schools--this local community in our county or some other local community would feel that I'm so far away that my decision is not in the best interest of that particular elementary school or high school or whatever. Yeah, I think that's a question. I think the further you are away from the situation, the more you have to be very careful to get all the information you can in making a decision. But I still think that in a democracy people have a right to ask for a review of decisions, and it's a fair system. ... Democracy isn't the most efficient process, and it's not the most inexpensive process for getting decisions made. But I don't know any better process.


QHow has governance changed? How have superintendencies and relationships between all these various authorities changed in 25 years?


AI think from time to time the balance of power, if you want to look at it that way, in the system between superintendent and board has wavered a little one way or the other. But from what I look back on, I don't see where it's changed much. The board has always, for example, under the laws of Maryland, appointed, or hired, and "dis-appointed," or fired, a superintendent.

Some people view the school system like the balance of power in the political system, and that's not the case at all. You have a president who's elected independently, you have a Congress, a legislature that's elected independently. We have here a school board that's elected, and they then appoint the superintendent of schools. So the superintendent of schools is an adviser, a chief executive officer, the secretary and treasurer of the school board, but the superintendent also serves at the approval of the school board. So there's a different situation, and some people miss that distinction. Technically, without any doubt, the school-board members elected by the people are the people's representatives and they are the power broker, the power authority under the law. The superintendent's job is to do the best he or she can in working with the board.


QIt's been suggested recently that superintendents abandon "management by consensus" and instead develop their ability to bring boards around to their own way of thinking.


AOne of the problems I've seen has been the fact that so often you will see a situation where a school board will appoint a superintendent and go through all the hoopla and have a big search and appoint somebody, and that person is Horace Mann revisited, you know, and within two years, he or the board changes, or something changes, and the same superintendent has now got to be packing bags and getting out of town. I think that's unfortunate. Things do seem to happen that way sometimes.

I think the superintendent has got to do purely and simply one thing: Give his or her best professional advice on what's best for students. Now, obviously, with the superintendent who is so unskilled at dealing with the board and at leading the board that his great ideas, no matter how marvelous they are, are routinely turned down, then the effectiveness simply isn't there.

But people who see it as an either-or situation haven't been in the chair I've been in for the last four years. You've got to be an instructional leader and recommend what you think is best, but you've also got to have the skills to teach it, to persuade, to lead people to accept and to reach consensus and then move ahead together. If you can't do both those things to a rather significant degree, I don't think you're going to be a successful school superintendent--at least not in Montgomery County, Md., that's for sure.


QI suppose that suggestion stems from the frustration, which most superintendents feel at one time or another, of putting in a lot of hours and effort on a project or recommendation, then seeing it kicked over by the board.


ASure. When that happens--once I calm down--my first look is to myself because a major portion of my job is to educate and teach and inform the community and the school-board members, who, after all, aren't professional educators. They are lay citizens, though well-informed lay citizens.

When that happens, I wonder if I haven't failed somehow as their teacher or whether our proposal was flawed and there was a better result. But, yes, it's absolutely frustrating. Sometimes it's very difficult for staff people to accept very gracefully, until we sit back and remember that we're serving the students and that neither the staff nor the superintendent nor anyone else ever has a corner on all the wisdom.


QYou're something of an anomaly among large-district superintendents, in that you've spent your whole career in one system while some of your counterparts seem to "trade up" every three years to a system that's 10,000 students larger than the last. What do you think of that pattern?


AI think the strengths of having come up through the system far outweigh the disadvantages. Having started here as a classroom teacher 26 years ago when I graduated from undergraduate school, and having been a teacher and come up through this system, I know the system, I know the community, I know the people, the elected officials. I think that's a tremendous advantage.

I almost feel sorry for the superintendent who would be trading up another 10,000 students and coming in here. It's very hard, it seems, for someone to come in and just to get to know the names and faces of all the staff people who work here, let alone all the community leaders and all the elected officials and all the school principals in a system this size and all the teachers' association leaders and all the other employees' association leaders you need to work with. It's difficult, it would seem to me, for someone to come in from outside. It's not impossible.

But I think for my part, the only mistake I made was getting up to be associate superintendent here, which I liked very much, and then when the board had the superintendent opening four years ago and was looking for someone and couldn't agree on someone, I kind of got stuck with it, going into the interim assignment and then staying with it for awhile. I never intended to be a superintendent. I knew, or I thought, I wouldn't like it, and I frankly haven't liked it much.


QWhy not?


AMostly, the time you have to spend on it. It's mostly 75-or-80-hour weeks.

It's also been a tough time for our system. We're getting smaller. We've had to face up to the tough task of closing schools ... and that is painful because people like their schools, and schools are important to communities. People said. "Yes, we know you have to close schools, but we want you to close that next one down the road, not ours." You know the line: "You've got the wrong one, fella."

That's been done, and the tough dirty work has been done. Because of that, we've had no layoffs, we've had no program cutbacks. In fact, we're improving programs. We're adding a seven-period day to high schools with money we saved from closing schools. We're adding an all-day kindergarten program. We've made a lot of program improvements while other school systems around the country seemed to be getting raped.

That's partly because we're a wealthy community, relatively speaking, but partly because we've trimmed things down. So I think we've done some things that have helped us continue to run this place in some tough times and keep morale reasonably high and certainly keep our focus on serving the youngsters.


QSo the dirty work has been done, and now somebody else is going to come in here and reap the benefits of that.


AI do feel that somewhat, and people have said to me, "Gosh, why are you leaving now? It's just about to get to be a decent job again." It still comes back really to that time and the tremendous amount of involvement that you have. There's no way I could see to keep doing the job without spending 70 or 80 hours--even if you're spending them on how can we improve the English program as opposed to which schools to close. You're still going to be spending the time, and you're still going to be balancing the needs and wrestling with the interests of the teachers and the parents and the principals and political officials and getting the money to do it all--and the board members, of course--so it's still going to be a tough job, but it will be tough, it seems to me, in ways that will be professionally very satisfying to someone.


QWhat principles have you tried to keep in mind during these tough years?


AWe knew we had to disrupt things with the school closures, for example, and the administrative cutbacks. What we wanted to do was kind of put up a wall between those kinds of actions and what goes on day-to-day with teachers and students and principals in school classrooms. We set up a process that essentially removed teachers and principals from the controversial kinds of things that we were doing. We said to them, "Let us wrestle with that. Let us give you the resources. You go on and teach the youngsters and do the best job you can."

They did that. We came close, I guess, to falling apart a couple of times. But through it all, our teachers have been superb and the principals have focused on just what we asked them to do. And they've done it well.

One of the issues that I wanted to be more successful in dealing with was the feeling on the part of our black community leaders that the school board was insensitive to the needs of black youngsters. I think we've made some limited progress on both black student achievement--the gaps have narrowed there--and some other things like participation of black youngsters in extracurricular activities. That's improved somewhat. But that has not been an area I really feel we've made a great deal of progress in, and I guess it is an area that I'm disappointed with most.


QA lot of suburban districts in other parts of the country are suddenly finding themselves in a similar situation, with a minority population that's growing quickly.


AIt's changing in some interesting ways. Some of our Asian students are among our best students. We have in the past four years gotten some of the boat children, adolescents who are illiterate in their own language. They've never been to school in their home country. They come over here at age 14, 15, 16, and they've never been to school. They come to school in a strange country with a strange language. Our [English-as-a-second language] programs and our tutorial programs for those youngsters--very costly programs--are very good, and it's just a totally different instructional challenge.

If we took people who knew Montgomery County 10 years ago to Montgomery Blair High School near the [District of Columbia] line, they wouldn't recognize it. You would find there a majority of minority students. It is, in every respect, an inner-city high school, but in the concept of some people, we are still white, middle-class, suburban Montgomery County. It's very diverse, very challenging.

Part of it is that people don't recognize how the county has changed and is changing. And it's all the more to the credit of our teachers that in the face of this diversity, we continue to show better results. It really is impressive to me. We have to keep educating the community about those changes.


QThis county has voluntarily taken on one of the largest experiments in integration in the country. Do you think it was the right approach?

AThere are some people who say we have not remained stable, and that's true because of this increase overall in the minority percentage. Because of housing patterns, our minority students tend to be centralized around the southern ring of the county adjacent to the district line. ... The racial imbalance in those schools, despite the desegregation efforts, continued to increase somewhat.

I believe what was done made sense. I believe people in the community felt that we were, in a voluntary way--that is, without a court order--willing to address the issue of racial imbalance. I think the vast majority of people in the county felt we were going in the right direction. Those schools were difficult educationally. Not all the parents were happy. Some of them went to nonpublic schools, but the vast majority of them stayed with it. Then, this past winter we got into reviewing that and the board made some changes, some of which were in fact overruled by the state board. We're still going through that and I'm hopeful that we can find something that's agreeable to all the communities and that we can defend as educationally sound.

There's a good deal of polarization ... but I really believe people here are people of good faith, and we're going to try to get a kind of community roundtable working and see if we can negotiate out a student-assignment pattern that would be agreeable to all and also be educationally sound.


QEarlier, you acknowledged what an affluent community this is; you spend a great deal more per pupil than the national average, and certainly more than is typical in Maryland. Putting that together with your firm belief that education is a state function, where does that put you in Somerset v. Hornbeck, in which poor districts are challenging the state school-finance system that allows you to spend so much?


AMy own point of view as superintendent in Montgomery County is that a local community ought to be able to provide the kind of education for its students that it's willing to support.

By the same token, education being a state function, I believe that the state contribution to ensure adequate levels of education has to be much greater than it is. That would mean to me that one of two things has to happen. Unfortunately, one of those two things is a massive infusion of additional state money, and that's not going to happen. [The legislature is] not going to put in another $100 million for public schools.

Therefore, the second thing that needs to happen is that the equalization formula, in my opinion, has to be more steeply equalizing. We, as a wealthy school system, get about 12 percent of our revenue from the state. Some of the poor districts already get about 80 percent of their operating budget paid for by the state. So there's already a fairly steep equalization. There's much less disparity in Maryland than there is in some other states. Nonetheless, I think it needs to be more steeply equalizing.

Frankly, what I'd like to really see would be a total overhaul of educational financing so that the property tax and some other things that are very regressive kinds of taxes are not the basic vehicle to fund the institution.


QTwenty-five years ago, when you were still teaching, would you even have paid any attention to these kinds of policy issues?


AWhen I was a teacher, I always wanted to be an assistant principal, and somehow in this crazy career, I've never gotten to be an assistant principal. That's the kind of thing where I thought I could have more of an impact on youngsters and help them more as an assistant principal or as a principal, which is what my objective was when I was teaching. But it just never worked out that way.


QDid your background in any way prepare you for this job?


ANo.


QWhat can be done to prepare people for superintendencies?


AAside from suits of armor and psychiatric hospitals ... No, I'm teasing. That's a difficult question. I don't know. I haven't really thought about that. It's a job that takes infinite stamina and patience and ability to deal with people and caring about youngsters and being willing to be hardheaded when you have to be. It takes so many different kinds of qualities. I don't know what kind of preparation there ought to be. But I'll tell you one thing. When you go into those schools and see things going well for youngsters, see them learning and happy and working hard, some of it gets to be pretty much worth it then.


QIn what ways do you feel "deprived" as a superintendent?


AThe one thing I do miss is meeting with the student leaders. There's not a whole lot of direct contact with students in this job. And young people are tremendous. They're honest. They haven't learned a lot of the sophistication of adults. They really do tell you pretty much what they think. I notice more and more that our student leaders are able to do that in sensitive and kind ways without losing any of the impact of their position when it differs.

We just had a big debate over whether we should abolish student smoking areas. The students and I came down on different sides of that. But there's no rancor, there's no bad feeling about it. We talked it over hour after hour with the student leaders.

I think of what I knew and what I did when I was in high school in the early 50's, and put that up against what the young people know and do today. Young people do know more than we ever did and they do more than we ever did. Frankly, you hear about some of the bad eggs. I think that probably there are fewer of them now than there were when I was in school. I'm very optimistic about the young people. I really am. And I wish I could deal more with them.

I remember when I first took this job I went down to one of the high schools one day, and we were trying to put more focus on going to class and being in class, staying out of the halls. When I went down to this one high school an 18-year-old fellow and a girl were sitting on the steps. When I walked in I said, "Can I help you?" They said no. I said, "What are you all doing here? You're supposed to be in class, aren't you?" And they were rather arrogant and nasty about it and said, "What business is it of yours? Who the hell are you?" And I said, "Well, who the hell I am is the superintendent of schools. Now get to your class." Well, they went, of course, and I've never seen that happen again. I just have a sense that the young people have a sense that it's important to learn, that they want to be pushed, they want to be led, they want to be taught, they want to do the right thing. In this school system, by and large, that's what they're doing.

Sometimes I get to feeling that we're in a corporate world as opposed to an educational world, and when I get to feeling that way, I do what I did yesterday. I went to two of our high schools, and I had a great day. ... It just makes you feel good getting in these public high schools and seeing what's going on. The kids are super, and the teachers are doing well, and it's nice.

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