Ky. Commissioner Wins Praise for ‘Toughest Job in American Education’

By Lonnie Harp — January 29, 1992 10 min read
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Those who wondered how well Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen would fit into Kentucky’s closely knit political and social scene may find an encouraging sign in the way his eyes brighten at the mention of the University of Kentucky basketball team.

“It is really wonderful to be there in those moments of frenzy,” he says of his experiences as a spectator.

But then, frenzy should be a familiar feeling to Mr. Boysen, the former San Diego school superintendent who a year ago assumed command of Kentucky’s six-year effort to revamp its public-school system from top to bottom.

As he walked down the center aisle of the House chamber here this month to deliver his first progress report to lawmakers, Mr. Boysen had already presided over the abolition and rebuilding of the state education department.

The chief strategist and cheerleader for the reform law, he has sought to win the support of superintendents while beginning an unprecedented crackdown on school administrators. And, in the midst of launching programs on assessment, technology, site-based decision-making, and ungraded primary classes, he has had the daunting task of lobbying for funding increases in the face of a state budget shortfall.

Interviews here with legislators, lobbyists, political observers, school administrators, and local board members generated both praise and criticism of Mr. Boysen’s work. Almost uniformly, though, participants in the state’s landmark school-reform experiment cite the difficulty of his task and the energy with which he has approached it.

‘The Toughest Job’

“He’s got the toughest job in American education. It’s complex beyond imagination,” said Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a statewide citizens'-advocacy group. “For all of us, this is frustrating work. There is so much to do, it’s just a bottomless pit; and he’s got the most bottomless pit of all.”

“A lot of people still say tiffs is an impossible job, but he’s been there all along saying that we can do tiffs,” Mr. Sexton added.

Local school officials agreed that Mr. Boysen’s enthusiasm has been an important signal.

“The position itself, at least in the first few years, is a no-win assignment,” said Ron Walton, superintendent of the Fayette County schools. “But he has taken an aggressive posture of making sure the reform act is implemented while providing an upbeat style of leadership. That’s important, because we are at a point where overload is upon us.”

Mr. Boysen acknowledges the pressure, but says he has yet to be intimidated by the workload.

“It’s been a time-management circus,” he observes. “We all go along with the illusion that we are allocating our time according to our priorities, but in truth there have been five and six things going on at the same time here. There is a lot of the feeling that, ‘I had a good week this week, but next week had better be better, or I’m not going to keep up.’” Lawmakers and observers give the rookie commissioner high marks for his general performance.

“in the great scheme of things, he does not get a 100, but he might get a 93 or 94, which is pretty darn good,” noted Senator David K. Karem, chairman of the Democratic caucus and a member of the legislative task force that drafted the 1990 law.

Rough-and-Tumble Politics

As the biennial political season opens in the state capital hero, discussion has centered on Mr. Boysen’s grasp of the political skills necessary to win credibility among lawmakers.

As a newcomer, Mr. Boysen lacks experience in the rough-and-ramble world of Kentucky politics, which provides the background for many of the lawmakers and officials with whom he must deal. An appointee, he also lacks the popular imprimatur enjoyed by previous state education chiefs, who were elected to their posts.

Moreover, Mr. Boysen’s job description has been blurred by the fact that many leading legislators--as well as the state’s new governor, Brereton Jones--are strong supporters of the reform law with the clout to potentially overshadow Mr. Boysen’s role in the current session.

“I know he hasn’t had any experience like Kentucky,” said A.D. Albright, the retired president of two of Kentucky’s regional universities and an active member of the state’s education and political circles.

As leader of the education-reform program, Mr. Boysen must become a quick study of Kentucky politics, Mr. Albright stud. But early signs, he continued, suggest that the commissioner is still in the learning stages.

“There is a feeling that he is a very good public-relations man and is on the kindly side rather than the bombastic, which is good, but there is some questions about whom he depends on for his advice,” Mr. Albright said.

Mr. Albright cited the commissioner’s request last fall for an extra $200 million to expand the state assessment program to every grade. The request was criticized by lawmakers, however, as well as by then Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson and the candidates running to succeed him.

“That came not at a good time and became public without him talking to some of the financial and budget leaders in the state,” Mr. Albright said. “That sometimes gives the impression that he’s not attuned to how things work or how to get things done.”

Programs or Local Aid?

The current budget crunch and the resulting restrictions on education funding have also brought out differences between Mr. Boysen and the legislative authors of the reform law.

Both sides agree that the state should provide a $180-million increase, as requested by Mr. Boysen. But the commissioner argues that priority for the increased funding should be given to the law’s categorical programs.

Lawmakers, however, say that funding for the formula that provides aid to local school systems should take precedence. Full local funding, the legislators contend, is central to the compact they made with school administrators when the law was created.

“There are some differences and they need to be resolved,” said Senator Michael R. Maloney, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee and a member of the 1990 reform task force. “We’ve got serious money problems and can only do certain things.”

Mr. Boysen’s priorities within the education department’s budget request include a $6.7-million increase in assessment funding, an $11.3-million rise in staff-development spending, and significant increases for family-service centers and a state program to reward improving schools. Less important, he says, is the $56.8-million recommended increase in the state’s Tier One school-aid program, which is designed to reward school districts with a high local tax effort.

Mr. Boysen adds, however, that he does not expect there to be lingering difficulties once the budget is settled. He thinks his primary challenge then will be helping school districts adjust to the tight funding.

“The Governor’s budget is going to be very powerful, and the news is not going to be good. So we’re going to have to keep morale and confidence up in the face of short rations,” he acknowledges.

‘Serious Housecleaning’

The commissioner’s attention to local districts was at first seen as a major mission, since many superintendents and school-board members had felt alienated by lawmakers’ decision to call in out-of-state consultants to develop the reform plan.

School officials said Mr. Boysen’s work has helped increase local administrators’ comfort with the reform program. Ironically, Mr. Boysen now faces criticism from state leaders, who charge that he has become too closely identified with the interests of local districts.

Several officials contended that Mr. Boysen had had to be prodded to begin enforcing the reform law’s governance provisions. Even so, his efforts have resulted in an unprecedented crackdown on corruption and misconduct that has forced the resignation of two school superintendents and led to the ousting of three school-board members on various charges. Authorities said investigations of several more local school officials are proceeding.

“There were some initial concerns about his ability to deal with problem school districts, but he has demonstrated his initiative to plow right in and begin some serious housecleaning,” said Senator Karem.

“He’s had to walk a sort of tightrope,” noted Cliff Wallace, the superintendent of the Pemberton County school system. “He’s been working with the school leaders at the same time he’s working with the legislators who have low regard for school superintendents and school-board members. It’s tough.”

Missed Reorganization Chance?

Mr. Boysen has also been caught in a bind over his reorganization of the education department.

The difficulties facing the commissioner were illustrated by the complaints about his efforts voiced by Mr. Wilkinson, who argued both that the changes in the agency were not substantial enough and that too many outsiders had been brought in.

Other officials as well argue that Mr. Boysen squandered the chance to pioneer a whole structure of the state education agency.

“It didn’t go far enough,” said Senator Maloney. “The opportunity was there to do what had never been done before. We wanted to change direction and while that occurred at the top levels, we missed a golden opportunity to change it at the operating level. That has not been done.”

“We bled, as members of the legislature, over a tremendous upheaval and said to this person to work on it as if the education department didn’t exist,” argued Senator Karem. “We said you get this one time in modern history to rethink this thing from the ground up and we said, if anything, err on the side of understaffing.”

“The net effect is that the employment is the same if not larger,” Mr. Karem said. “I think that’s a shame.”

The department has also been criticized for being slow or even unable to answer local educators’ questions about new programs.

But Mr. Boysen says he is pleased with the new agency. To counter criticism that the changes did not go far enough, he points out that 85 top- and middle-management positions were trimmed to 65, and that 80 percent of the jobs were filled with new administrators.

While at the lower levels 85 percent of the jobs in the new education agency went to former employees of the old department, Mr. Boysen notes that all are on a one-year probationary period. “We expect to see some new faces in that group,” he adds.

“It is clear to me that we’ve been changing the team in the middle of the tournament,” he concedes. “We’re still learning as we send pieces of legislation across the river [to the capitol] and staff people say it’s not what they had in mind.”

“This is a team that came together on Sept. 10, but you don’t get any credit for starting late, so that’s been a frustration,” Mr. Boysen says.

After the Euphoria

Observers expect that frustrations will grow in the months ahead, as the hurried pace of reform continues while funding tightens. “The euphoria that accompanied the passage of the bill is gone,” noted Superintendent Walton.

Speaking of Mr. Boysen, Representative Roger Noe, chairman of the House Education Committee, commented, “He had a pretty good year, but the real test is coming up.”

Senator Maloney agreed. “I don’t think it’s fair to say he’s been an overwhelming success or had an overwhelming lack of success. The next year or two will tell the tale.”

In addition to coping with a tougher economic climate, Mr. Boysen notes, those responsible for the reform program must now begin implementing some of the law’s more difficult provisions.

“You could say that the preschool program and some of the others were relatively easy. That’s a happy time,” Mr. Boysen suggests. “The first two years are high on new money and low on change. The next two years are going to be low on new money and high on change.”

The same holds true for the law’s governance mandates.

“The things we’ve done so far are cases that were clear and the evidence was there,” Mr. Boysen argues. “There is another set of things that are merely sabotage and faint-heartedness, but we have to deal with that. I am aware there are some people waiting for this thing to go down, and are doing as little as they can do, but we’re going to figure out who they are and get through to them.”

Mr. Albright, the veteran educator, warned that the challenges facing Mr. Boysen and the Kentucky school-reform movement will only grow more difficult.

“He’s made some good steps and good impressions, but you can’t rest on those,” Mr. Albright said. “This is a real grind.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Ky. Commissioner Wins Praise for ‘Toughest Job in American Education’


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