AASA’s Leader Aims For Policy Influence
In hiring Daniel A. Domenech, the directors of the American Association of School Administrators were looking for an advocate who could position the group in the front row of education policy debates in Washington.
Mr. Domenech, who began his job as the executive director of the AASA in July, has battle scars from years spent in the rough-and-tumble arena of local education debates and politics, both in New York and Virginia. And he has corporate polish from his last job, as an executive with the publisher McGraw-Hill Education in New York City.
The AASA’s president, Randall Collins, who is the superintendent of the 3,000-student Waterford, Conn., public schools, said Mr. Domenech has the political savvy and credibility as a longtime district administrator to ensure that the 13,000-member group won’t be cut out of important education policy decisions—particularly the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The association, which represents superintendents and other district-level administrators, was one of the few national education groups to openly oppose the measure when it was passed by Congress in 2001.
“AASA needs to position itself so that we are at the table and are heard on education policies in a new administration,” Mr. Collins said. “When we took our point of view on NCLB last time, which was the correct one, we were frozen out. We need to be more constructive this time around. Dan can help us do that.”
In the era of high-stakes accountability measures, long-established education groups like the AASA have seen their influence diminished. Instead, newer groups such as the Washington-based Education Trust and organizations founded by social entrepreneurs, such as Teach For America and New Leaders for New Schools, are capturing federal policymakers’ attention.
Mr. Domenech, 63, pledges to change that situation, and to make the AASA a more inclusive entity that mirrors the rapidly changing demographics in the nation’s public schools. He took over from Paul D. Houston, who retired after 14 years leading the Arlington, Va.-based association.
In taking the job, Mr. Domenech was coming home to familiar turf. He served as the superintendent of the 165,000-student Fairfax County, Va., schools from 1998 to 2004. In that role, he sometimes clashed with local and state politicians as he fought for more funding, especially in his push for new resources to fix aging buildings and special interventions to address the suburban Washington district’s rapid growth in poor and immigrant students.
While staying attentive to the demands of affluent parents by working to ensure that academic performance and test scores would remain strong, Mr. Domenech managed to shift the focus of the high-performing district to the needs of struggling students from low-income families.
For Mr. Domenech, who emigrated from Cuba to New York City with his parents when he was 9 years old, expanding the reach of the AASA is a top priority.
The association, founded in 1865, represents roughly 60 percent of the nation’s district-level school administrators. Mr. Domenech has been charged by its board with expanding the membership, in part to help shore up the organization’s finances. In its 2006-07 fiscal year, the AASA’s expenditures of roughly $9.5 million outstripped its revenues of $9.3 million, due in part to lower-than-expected turnout for its 2007 annual conference, which was held that year in a still hurricane-battered New Orleans.
The bulk of the annual budget—which is set at $11 million for the 2008-09 fiscal year—comes from membership dues, which range from $403 a year for active members from districts with more than 350 students to $55 a year for aspiring school leaders, and revenues generated by its spring conference.
While some 7,000 of its members, or a little over half, are district superintendents, the organization has traditionally had a harder time bringing schools chiefs from large urban districts and small rural districts into its fold, Mr. Domenech said.
Superintendents and other district-level administrators are increasingly nonwhite, and female, demographic changes that Mr. Domenech said should be reflected in the AASA’s ranks and leadership.
To do that, Mr. Domenech is reaching out to other school leadership organizations, such as the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, an Arlington, Texas-based group that represents roughly 500 education leaders. Later this month, Mr. Domenech will be a keynote speaker at the group’s annual conference.
“This is very critical for us if we are going to stay relevant as a national organization,” Mr. Domenech said in a recent interview. “As our schools are filled more and more with children who are minorities, we’ve also got to play a role in helping the demographics of superintendents and other leaders reflect the student population.”
Hector Montenegro, the president of the Latino administrators’ association, said his group was formed in 2003 because “we felt that there was not a clear forum that was addressing the needs of leaders of Hispanic-dominated school districts nationally.”
He said that the AASA supported the formation of his organization, but that with Mr. Domenech now at the helm, expectations for the AASA to focus on leadership issues critical to Latino administrators—such as the challenges of educating English-language learners—are high. Mr. Montenegro estimated that fewer than 10 percent of the superintendents who are in his organization are also members of the AASA.
“I think his priority is to be very inclusive,” Mr. Montenegro said of Mr. Domenech, adding that he hopes to see a broader range of professional-development offerings at the AASA’s conferences and a more diverse governing board for the organization.
Mr. Domenech’s personal story—he spoke only Spanish when his mother, a seamstress, and his father, a doorman in New York City, enrolled him in a Roman Catholic school where only English was spoken—gives him extra credibility, particularly on issues of poverty and English-language acquisition.
Mr. Domenech said he wants the AASA to be the go-to resource for school leaders dealing with practical, yet vexing, management challenges.
One example is high fuel prices, which are now one of the greatest financial pressures on districts. In late July, the AASA released a survey of superintendents that showed fuel costs were having a significant impact on their districts’ budgets. Later this month, the group will host an “energy summit” in Washington for a small group of administrators to outline cost-saving measures and best practices that will be passed on to all its members.
In addition, Mr. Domenech wants to widen the membership to encompass the full range of school leaders.
“We’ve got to embrace the nontraditional superintendents, the young school leaders, and find ways to provide that diverse group with programs and services that are most valuable to them in their districts,” he said.
One way to do that, he said, is through his plan to revamp the organization’s professional-development opportunities, not only in content, but in how it is delivered.
“Putting butts in seats has been the focus of our professional development, and that’s not what most people want anymore,” Mr. Domenech said. “Administrators are busier and they are more technology-savvy, so we’ve got to evolve and provide more online professional development through webinars, and more online forums for leaders to connect and talk with one another.”
Another of Mr. Domenech’s top priorities—to elevate the AASA’s profile as the major advocate in Washington for education leaders—is likely to be his biggest challenge.
To accomplish that goal, said Mr. Collins, the organization’s president, the AASA must cast a wider net for members and work especially hard to enlist big-city schools chiefs.
Typically, the concerns of leaders in large urban systems are represented by the Council of the Great City Schools.
“That’s how we get people’s attention on [Capitol Hill], by showing that we’ve got nearly all, if not all of the superintendents, including the big urbans,” Mr. Collins said. “To get their ear, we’ve got to speak with one, loud voice.”
Off the Sidelines
Staking out policy positions will be crucial, too, said Mr. Collins, who said he has told Mr. Domenech that, first and foremost, he doesn’t want the group on the sidelines when Congress resumes its deliberations on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act sometime after the presidential election.
Mr. Domenech agrees.
“If we are going to be critics, we have to be constructive critics,” he said. “We have to make sure that [political leaders] see us as experts” on education reform, not as opponents of it.
The AASA outlined its legislative agenda for 2008 in a document called “All Children Will Learn,” which emphasizes the role the group says the federal government must take to address what Mr. Domenech calls the “total child.”
“We don’t have a problem with accountability and assessment, but that can no longer be the totality of our reform efforts,” he said. “We can all agree that we need to have the best teachers in every classroom, but when a kid goes home to an environment of poverty or violence, that disrupts much of what that teacher has taught and what that student has learned.”
Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals, said Mr. Domenech’s experience leading the Fairfax County district during the first few years of NCLB implementation positioned him well to be a spokesman on the law’s reauthorization.
“I think he’ll be a very articulate spokesman on what the accountability benefits of NCLB have been and what the flaws have been, since he was in the trenches when this all got started,” Mr. Tirozzi said. “We all saw him stick his chin out over and over in Fairfax. He won’t be sitting on the sidelines.”
Vol. 28, Issue 06, Pages 1, 14Published in Print: October 1, 2008, as AASA’s Leader Aims For Policy Influence