Under Tirozzi, NASSP Looks to Brighter Future

By Bess Keller — March 17, 1999 7 min read

After months of hard work, leaders of the National Association of Secondary School Principals say they have raised the group out of its financial and management crisis of a year ago and, by putting a respected leader at the helm, launched anew.

Gerald N. Tirozzi stepped down from his job as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education to head the nation’s largest principals’ organization. His appointment has brought relief and optimism to the group’s Reston, Va., headquarters and among its state affiliates.

Mr. Tirozzi made his debut here at the group’s recent 83rd annual convention, and early this month he moved into the suburban-Washington office Timothy J. Dyer vacated a year earlier. Thomas F. Koerner, the former deputy head whom the nassp board named executive director after firing Mr. Dyer from that post, has retired after 27 years with the organization.

Gerald N. Tirozzi

Age: 61
Title: Executive director, National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Education: Ph.D. in educational administration and higher education, 1973, Michigan State University; Certificate of Advanced Study, administration and supervision, 1967, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Conn.; M.A. in guidance and counseling, 1964, Southern Connecticut State College; B.A. in elementary education, 1959, Southern Connecticut State College.
Former positions: Assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, U.S. Department of Education, 1996-99; visiting professor, department of educational leadership, University of Connecticut, 1993-96; president, Wheelock College, Boston, 1991-93; Connecticut commissioner of education, 1983-91; superintendent, New Haven, Conn., public schools, 1977-83.

The new executive director takes over a $21 million operation that a year ago was reeling from the firing of Mr. Dyer and the news that the employee pension fund was $1.1 million in the hole. Two other top executives had also recently departed--one involuntarily, the other reportedly under duress--and the 41,000-member organization faced legal threats from four former employees, including Mr. Dyer. (“Departures, Budget Woes Roil NASSP,” March 18, 1999.)

Mr. Tirozzi, 61, is a veteran educator and administrator who likes to cite his experience at every professional level in education, from teacher to principal to district superintendent to state schools chief and, most recently, presidential appointee. In recent weeks, he has been meeting quietly with employees, officials, and even former staff members to get to know the organization. Almost all of the 125-odd employees in the Reston headquarters have sat down with him in small groups, and he had spoken in person or on the telephone with most of the top people in the state affiliates as well as every member of the NASSP’s board of directors.

Trying Times

Those efforts to restore confidence were badly needed, most insiders say.

By the end of its fiscal year last June, the NASSP had sustained an overall loss of $2.6 million. The old pension plan, which provided a guaranteed sum to retired employees, was shut down, and a new one, in which employees bear the risks of the investment market, was introduced.

The headquarters staff was also plagued by a new computer system that, among other headaches, tangled membership files.

Speaking to members at the New Orleans convention, Mr. Koerner called 1998 “a year I suspect many people are glad is over.”

But he and other leaders were decidedly upbeat about the future. They praised their new executive director and pointed to the group’s improved finances.

Finances Sounder

On the financial side, officials said the $2.6 million drop in net assets sustained last year had been recouped. The loss stemmed in part, Mr. Koerner said, from the unexpected pension liability and the costs of finding a new executive director. At the end of the calendar year, he added, the group’s net assets stood at $2.4 million.

“We are not out of the proverbial woods,” Mr. Koerner said, “but we are well on the road to recovery.”

The group incurred claims on future assets when it borrowed money to put toward the old pension fund, as required by the federal government. “That does have an impact on the expenditure side for three to five years,” said the board’s new president, Curt L. Voight, the principal of South Middle School in Rapid City, S.D. “But it doesn’t appear it will impact services to members.”

Mr. Koerner explained to members that the organization bettered its financial picture by reining in costs and improving revenue collection. “I’m pleased that costs in the executive office are down,” he noted, drawing laughter from members. While Mr. Dyer was known for traveling first-class and making similar arrangements for the board of directors, Mr. Koerner preferred mid-priced hotels.

Leaders also pointed to an improved board structure, with four new positions earmarked for members who belong to “underrepresented” groups. Last year, the 20-member board was exclusively white and included only one woman.

Legal Matters

On the legal front, the picture has improved as well, though a lawsuit by Mr. Dyer remains. The suit, filed in January, alleges that NASSP officials breached Mr. Dyer’s contract when they fired him, and it asks for $1.2 million in lost wages.

A suit brought last year by a former employee, Marisa Sherard, who directed the NASSP’s foreign-exchange programs and was fired in December 1997, was settled last month. Ms. Sherard had charged the organization with condoning “a hostile work environment” for heterosexual employees, retaliating against her when she complained about illegal employment practices and the conduct of homosexual employees, and breach of contract in her firing and in the failure of the organization to pay her for accrued vacation time.

She had sought more than $658,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The terms of the settlement are private, and Ms. Sherard could not be reached for comment.

Two other complaints by former employees have apparently also been resolved.

Stephen R. Yurek, the nassp’s legal counsel, would not comment on any of the cases except to say that, overall, he was more than satisfied with the way the group’s legal problems had turned out.

Influencing Policy

In an interview in his 27th-floor hotel suite high above the streets of New Orleans during the Feb. 26-March 2 convention, Mr. Tirozzi sought to direct attention to the association’s broader challenges. As he munched on a pastry to make up for the food he never got around to at two earlier breakfast meetings, the former Connecticut education commissioner pledged to give principals a stronger voice in Washington and among policymakers everywhere who are shaping school reform.

At the federal Education Department, he noted, “whenever we were into a major policy consideration, I never heard anyone pick up the phone and say, ‘Let’s call the NASSP.’ ”

He also vowed to shore up relations with the state affiliates, relationships that many say had sagged during Mr. Dyer’s eight-year tenure and then played a role in his downfall. State executive directors urged board members to pursue the investigations that revealed the financial difficulties.

Peggy McAllister, the president of the state executive directors’ group and a member of the search committee for the new leader, said the panel sought someone “who was a collaborator and a presence in Washington.”

“I think Tim Dyer was good for the association while he was there, bringing in a lot of revenue and a lot of credibility,” Ms. McAllister added. “And I believe Gerry Tirozzi will bring us to a new level.”

As assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the Education Department, where he came from Connecticut in 1996, Mr. Tirozzi won good marks for human relations and leadership.

In that job he earned $118,000 a year. The NASSP job pays considerably more, though Mr. Tirozzi would not say how much. Mr. Dyer made more than $205,000 annually, including a housing allowance and contributions to an annuity, according to court documents.

Mr. Tirozzi said he sees his new job as “capstoning a career.” While principals are a vital part of education reform, especially in troubled urban systems, they are in short supply and lack status, he said. Those issues are intertwined and cannot be solved independently, he added.

The administrator hopes to add to the NASSP’s membership, especially in urban areas, where it is comparatively weak. About half the nation’s high school principals and 40 percent of its middle-level principals belong to the national association.

In May, the group’s board, which includes 10 new members this year, will meet with Mr. Tirozzi to set a direction for the next few years. The panel will also spend time studying its role and responsibilities.

A lot has changed for the board of directors in the past 18 months, said Mr. Voight, the new board president. Board members have learned to take their oversight of the organization’s administration and finances more seriously than in the past, he and others said.

New members, after years of work for their state organizations and in their regions, often “had the perspective that the board appointment ... was one to enjoy,” Mr. Voight said. “Perhaps business was not attended to as closely as it should have been.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Under Tirozzi, NASSP Looks to Brighter Future