Ala. Chief Seeks To Keep Agenda on Track

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Montgomery, Ala.

As the superintendent of a small, rural district defends himself, Alabama's state superintendent and school board listen. But schools chief Edward R. Richardson doesn't like what he's hearing one bit: He sees a human obstacle to improving Alabama's schools.

Mr. Richardson is dissatisfied with the local administrator's assertion that financial health is the same as having money in the district's bank account. While the Lawrence County superintendent has done "nothing malicious or illegal," Mr. Richardson points out, the district stands to have a zero balance at the close of the school year. Yet, officials there want to build a new $10 million school.

In a unanimous vote at last month's state board meeting, members authorize Mr. Richardson to take control of Lawrence County's finances, if a last-chance local effort to cut spending proves inadequate.

The train of change is leaving the station in Alabama, and Mr. Richardson, who was appointed by the state board in 1995 to be its first new schools chief in 20 years, has embraced his role as engineer. But he knows a steep grade lies ahead if he is to effect long-lasting and meaningful improvements for schools in one of the nation's most impoverished and underachieving states.

As underscored by Mr. Richardson: "Alabama has no time to waste."

No Excuses

Even as he sets the bar higher for academic achievement in the state, it's clearly tough even to get some school systems to account properly for their finances or to run, for example, federal child-nutrition programs without seeing them bleed red ink.

But Mr. Richardson seems to relish the challenge. "I don't like excuses," he said in a recent interview. "This state has many capable people who are undereducated,underserved--permanently handicapped--and I don't want to be a part of that."

In the 19 months since he took office, he has breathed life into a moribund state education agenda. He has already moved aggressively on several fronts, including holding schools accountable financially. Lawrence County earned a reprieve from financial takeover by making budget cuts late last month, but the state currently runs the business affairs of two other school systems.

Aiding Mr. Richardson is a 1995 state law, predating his arrival, that allows him to intervene in financially unstable districts and impose sanctions on academically failing ones, among other actions.

Also in his corner are a strong duo of deputy superintendents and a state board that, by and large, shares his progressive agenda. That setup is a night-and-day difference from the days of the former chief and state board, whom one current state board member described as "quiescent and passive."

It was the election of an almost entirely new board--six out of eight elected seats--in 1994 that paved the way for the board's appointment of an activist superintendent. The choice of Mr. Richardson shocked observers who thought the board would select a candidate backed by special-interest groups or Gov. Fob James Jr.

The Republican governor had supported another candidate. In a move viewed as both smart and classy, Mr. Richardson promptly hired the governor's choice, as well as another finalist for the superintendency, as his deputies. Now, he said, he counts the governor among his biggest supporters.

That support, and his own skills and hard work, have helped Mr. Richardson quell disquiet over actions he has taken to stir up the status quo.

Since Mr. Richardson assumed his $130,000-a-year post, the state board has increased high school graduation requirements to four years each of English, mathematics, social studies and history, and science. It has also approved revising the required exit test for graduation to make it more demanding.

So far, he seems to enjoy broad public support--from the business community to the news media--for the changes he's wrought and the hope he represents.

"He really does have outstanding leadership skills," said Jan Dempsey, the mayor of Auburn, Ala., where Mr. Richardson was the superintendent for 13 years. "Ed is a person with vision, with intelligence, with direction, and ... great energy. He has the courage to make decisions."

Impatient Innovator

Though a native of Pensacola, Fla., Mr. Richardson, 58, has worked his entire career in Alabama. A graduate of Auburn University, he started as a classroom teacher, then became an assistant principal and principal.

Immediately preceding his rise to state superintendent, he headed the 4,300-student Auburn system. There, he enhanced the already strong reputation of the schools that surround the university, earning from city voters the first property-tax increase in recent memory. While in Auburn, he also served as then-Gov. Guy Hunt's education adviser--invaluable training for his current job, he says.

Those who know and have worked with Mr. Richardson describe him as creative and innovative, as well as serious, focused, hardworking, and demanding. His detractors, on the other hand, say he can be hardheaded, impatient, and uncommunicative.

"If he sees something that's not right, he's going to work on it. That's Ed Richardson," said Theoler Harris, a former Auburn board member and a current district employee.

It was in Auburn, Mr. Richardson says, that he became a convert to the importance of early-childhood education. To tackle overcrowding in the elementary schools and the district's indifference toward kindergarten, Mr. Richardson hit upon the notion of building a new early-learning center devoted to kindergartners and child care for district employees.

Now he is trying to carry out that vision statewide, financing pilot programs for serving the needs of at-risk preschoolers.

A Matter of Trust

Since he became state chief, Mr. Richardson and his team have, by his account, been so aggressive that they have accomplished six years of work in 1«.

His first priority, he says, has been to restore Alabama residents' faith in the public schools, which have historically been given a low priority and inadequate funding.

Mr. Richardson subscribes to the idea that the time for school reform is now or never. "If we don't make substantial improvements within five years, the public schools as a viable institution in this country will not survive."

For instance, he is now pressing legislators to approve a $125 million bond issue for technology for schools. It's critical, he argues, to provide students in rural and poor districts the same course offerings--by television--that their more fortunate peers have.

Mr. Richardson's haste to reform and his get-tough attitude have irked some administrators and school boards, though. But he defends his decision to issue report cards for the state's 127 districts last fall and his plan to rate all schools this year. "I want schools to understand whether or not they're performing, and I want communities to know it."

He has drawn even stronger ire from those in the financially troubled districts on whom he is cracking down.

Birmingham, the state's third-largest school system, is on notice that it has until next month to work out its financial troubles or have the state take over its money matters.

David Long-Daniels, a school board member in the 42,000-student Birmingham district, faulted Mr. Richardson for pulling a "bait and switch" maneuver when the local board tried to abide by reforms he wanted. Mr. Long-Daniels accused Mr. Richardson of changing his mind about laying off employees.

"He'll say one thing in private and another thing in public," Mr. Long-Daniels said. "It makes it difficult for the board to trust him."

But Mr. Richardson said his requests to the Birmingham board have been consistent and made in public and in writing. "The Birmingham board," he shot back, "has been in a state of denial and resistance."

Mr. Richardson says he knows some in the state may be waiting for him to slip up. But he doesn't let it get to him.

Every time he prepares to make a decision, he says, he pictures five children whom he got to know during his career. Each had potential for success, but lacked chances.

"They remind me I have a responsibility for those five," he said, "and all the others not to get timid, not to lose my commitment, not to get discouraged, and to remember that they're worth it."

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