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Published in Print: June 23, 2004, as State Law Tips Power Toward New Orleans Schools Chief

State Law Tips Power Toward New Orleans Schools Chief

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In a dramatic reversal of fortune, New Orleans Superintendent Anthony S. Amato has gone this month from facing his possible termination to becoming the most empowered local superintendent in Louisiana.

Anthony S. Amato

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco signed a measure on June 10 that shifts considerable decisionmaking authority to Mr. Amato, and away from the Orleans Parish school board. The law, which also makes it harder to fire the superintendent, came days after some school board members appeared poised to consider terminating his contract.

"We’re just trying this as a last-ditch effort to strengthen a system that has not had stability," Gov. Blanco, a Democrat, said in an interview with Education Week. She noted that the 80,000-student New Orleans system has had at least eight acting superintendents in as many years.

The state legislation had been in the works for months. But it became more urgent for its backers when the district’s school board president recently called a special meeting to discuss Mr. Amato’s job performance. Announced with barely 24 hours’ notice, the meeting was scheduled for a day when it was known that the superintendent would be out of town.

Court Order

Neither the board president nor others on the body who have recently been critical of the superintendent were available for comment last week. Others on the board who support Mr. Amato contend that some of the their colleagues on the panel were upset with the superintendent because they suspected him of pushing for the legislation that would strip them of much of their authority.

Mr. Amato has said he had nothing to do with the law. The schools chief is a former superintendent of the 24,500-student Hartford, Conn., public schools, where he forged a national reputation for quickly raising test scores.

Before the special meeting could take place, board members Jimmy Farhenholtz and Una Anderson, who support the superintendent, won a temporary restraining order from a federal judge in New Orleans that barred the board from terminating the superintendent’s contract.

"We knew that if that meeting takes place, Tony’s fired," said Mr. Farhenholtz.

The two board members argued that firing Mr. Amato without cause would violate the due-process guarantee in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Amid the legal wrangling, the bill to give the superintendent greater authority streaked through the Louisiana legislature, passing 74-20 in the House of Representatives, and 39-0 in the Senate. The measure took effect as soon as Gov. Blanco signed it.

The law greatly limits the role that the school board can play in district budget, personnel, and contractual matters. It also says the superintendent’s contract can be terminated only by a two-thirds vote of the board—as opposed to a simple majority—meaning Mr. Amato can be fired only if five of seven board members agree to it.

"We thought we needed a superintendent who had the power to the make the hard decisions without having to look over his shoulder," said Mtumishi St. Julien, a member of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, a nonprofit group of civic leaders that helped draft the law.

Statewide Implications

The law also requires that Mr. Amato consider outsourcing the district’s fiscal operations, an area of management that the superintendent has struggled to improve since his hiring 16 months ago. Among other problems, a federal probe has alleged that thousands of individuals have received improper payments and insurance benefits from the school district in recent years. ("New Orleans Schools Focus of Fraud Probe," Oct. 22, 2003.)

Mr. Amato said he recognized that with his new authority comes greater accountability for his leadership. He also pledged to continue to work with the school board. "I think we’re all glad that this is behind us," he said last week. "We all have to collaboratively figure out how we’re going to proceed forward."

In addition to its immediate effect on New Orleans, the law has statewide implications. It applies to any district where more than 30 schools—or where more than half the schools—are rated "academically unacceptable" by the state’s accountability system. For now, New Orleans is now the only Louisiana district that meets those criteria, but that could change as the state raises its standards.

Vol. 23, Issue 41, Page 13

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