School & District Management

Changes in District Leadership Can Leave Funders Wary

By Corey Mitchell — March 31, 2015 7 min read
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When the Hillsborough County school board in Florida recently fired Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, questions immediately arose about the fate of the district’s $100 million teacher-improvement initiative financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

To quell concerns, Irvin Scott, the deputy director of education at the foundation, traveled from the District of Columbia to the Tampa-based district to address the crowd at one of Ms. Elia’s farewell receptions.

His trip sent a clear signal, school officials said: The Gates Foundation remains committed to the work.

“They know the strong leadership that we’ve had in Hillsborough,” Ms. Elia said of the philanthropy. “They wanted to be there to show the appreciation for the work we’ve done.”

MaryEllen Elia's firing raised concerns about the future of the Hillsborough, Fla., district’s grant funding.

Districts such as Hillsborough County increasingly rely on hefty investments from private funders to pay for a variety of improvement efforts, from purchasing classroom technology to building stronger pipelines of prospective principals.

But the potential for tumult in the leadership ranks is an issue that donors to K-12 must constantly wrestle with as they make decisions about which school districts they want to support with their money. When superintendents attract tens of millions of dollars from foundations and then depart abruptly, the ties between their districts and those funders can turn tenuous.

“Turnover matters tremendously,” said Andrés A. Alonso, a former superintendent of the Baltimore city schools, who is now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It makes the national foundations gun-shy.”

So far, it appears the Gates Foundation isn’t flinching in Hillsborough County.

The 206,000-student school system is in its fifth year of Empowering Effective Teachers, a seven-year evaluation and mentoring program supported by Gates in Hillsborough and a handful of other districts and charter schools that the foundation selected. (The Gates Foundation also helps support Education Week‘s coverage of college- and career-ready standards and assessments.)

The Hillsborough school board fired Ms. Elia in January, the same month she became one of four finalists for the national superintendent of the year award given by AASA, the School Superintendents Association. She had led the district, the nation’s eighth-largest, since 2005.

Ms. Elia’s decade at the helm marked an anomaly. The average tenure of superintendents leading urban school districts is now slightly more than three years, a 2014 Council of the Great City Schools survey found.

“Stability was a factor [in the award of the grant]. They made that clear,” Hillsborough County schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty said of Gates Foundation officials. “We think that we are still a school district that has stable leadership. The next few months and years will determine whether that will continue to be the case.”

The school board has hired Jeff Eakins, a current deputy superintendent and longtime district employee, as Ms. Elia’s successor.

Mr. Scott, of the Gates Foundation, noted that leadership changes in other participating districts such as Pittsburgh and Memphis didn’t disrupt the initiative. "[We] have continued to work with these districts as long as they remain committed to the work and outcomes,” he said in a statement. “Hillsborough County is no different.”

Succession Plans

While school districts have drawn financial support from private philanthropy for decades, the more recent pressures for urban school systems to improve achievement for vulnerable students even under tight budget constraints has helped drive the rise in district leaders who seek outside money. With budgets that allow little room for flexibility, some district leaders argue that without aid from philanthropy, some improvement efforts and new initiatives would never get off the ground, much less come to fruition.

“A lot of what is available in the margins is coming from the relationships with private donors and foundations,” Mr. Alonso said.

Hillsborough County and the 145,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools are among the six districts participating in the Principal Pipeline Initiative, a $75 million investment by the New York City-based Wallace Foundation to better train principals and support and evaluate them on the job. (The Wallace Foundation helps support Education Week‘s coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning.)

The departures of Ms. Elia and Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s schools chief, Heath Morrison, are the latest leadership changes since that initiative began in 2011. The Wallace Foundation has already dealt with leadership turnover in New York City and the Prince George’s County, Md., schools.

The foundation is donating between $7.5 million and $12.5 million to each school system over six years. As a condition of the grants, the districts are matching one-third of the grant amount with local funds. Another condition: Districts must plan for the inevitable changes in leadership.

“The superintendent is an important leader, … but we make sure we work with a team,” said Jody Spiro, the director of education leadership for the Wallace Foundation. “No leader ever does it alone. It builds insurance against disruption.”

Wallace also allows for flexibility, giving new superintendents the opportunity to reshape the grant as it fits their agenda, Ms. Spiro said.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the team leader for the principals’ work was former Deputy Superintendent Ann Blakeney Clark, a longtime district teacher and administrator who was promoted to the top job in January.

In the Los Angeles Unified schools, a number of deep-pocketed foundations backed former Superintendent John Deasy as he advanced an agenda that included opening more charter schools and instituting personnel changes that made it easier to fire teachers that supervisors deemed ineffective.

The Los Angeles district’s roster of big-name backers includes the Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Wasserman Foundation. (Broad helps support Education Week‘s coverage of personalized learning and systems leadership; Walton helps support coverage of parent empowerment.)

“We see our role as a partner in problem-solving with the district, so it’s never our intent to drop funding due to unanticipated changes to the system,” Meredith Young, the director of communications for the Austin, Texas-based Dell Foundation, said in a statement.

Having served two previous stints as superintendent in the 641,000-student Los Angeles district, Mr. Deasy’s successor, Ramon C. Cortines, is a familiar face for foundation leaders. Mr. Deasy, who resigned in October, now works for the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems as a consultant.

But even with Mr. Cortines in charge, it’s not clear yet whether the investments made during Mr. Deasy’s tenure will continue.

“With many of the foundations, support is not contingent on a specific leader or leadership team. But with some, it’s more about a political agenda than an instructional agenda,” Los Angeles Unified school board Vice President Steve Zimmer said. Of “the political-agenda foundations, … we haven’t heard much from them much since” Mr. Deasy’s departure, he said.

Mr. Zimmer declined to say which foundations he considers to have “political agendas.”

‘Switching Horses’

Under former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, then-Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein helped raised hundreds of millions of dollars from the philanthropic community to help pay for his and Mr. Bloomberg’s vision for public schooling, which included a rapid expansion of charter schools, smaller high schools, assigning letter grades to every school, and a heavy reliance on test scores for making decisions about grade promotion.

While foundation dollars continue to flow to the 1.1 million-student school system, efforts by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña to change the policies put in place by the Bloomberg administration hasn’t pleased some major donors, including officials at the Broad Foundation.

“Unfortunately, successful efforts to improve public schools are too often rolled back whenever a new leader steps in,” Swati Pandey, a spokeswoman for the Broad Foundation, said in a statement.

“Whether you agree with a particular effort or not, I think we can all agree that switching horses every couple years makes it impossible to create sustainable improvement for students,” she said.

During Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure, the Broad Foundation contributed $21 million to the city’s school system. The foundation also awarded the district with its Broad Prize in 2007. While Broad continues to support charter schools in the city, the New York schools have not requested grant funding under Mr. de Blasio’s and Ms. Fariña’s leadership.

Overall, the contributions coming from foundations to big school districts remain relatively small, considering that numerous metropolitan school systems have multibillion-dollar budgets. Still, unlike in New York, the specter of lost funds hangs over some districts and their decisionmaking, experts said.

“Most districts are going to do whatever they need to do to not lose that money,” Mr. Alonso said. “This is a business of relationships.”

While she’s no longer at the helm in Hillsborough County, Ms. Elia, in an interview, expressed high hopes that the school district’s sizable foundation support won’t dry up when the current grants expire.

“But I can’t guarantee anything now, because I’m no longer the superintendent,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2015 edition of Education Week as Turnover at Top Can Leave Funders Wary

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