School & District Management

Chicago Chief Named Amid Urban Turnover

By Karla Scoon Reid — July 11, 2001 5 min read
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As the new chief executive officer of the Chicago schools settled into his position late last month, only one of the nation’s 10 largest districts was being run by a leader with more than two years on the job.

Mayor Richard M. Daley stunned the city’s education watchers on June 26 by tapping Arne Duncan, a relative unknown, to succeed Paul G. Vallas, who was appointed in 1995. The Harvard-educated Mr. Duncan had been in charge of establishing magnet-quality programs in the city’s neighborhood schools since 1998.

Joining Chicago in naming new superintendents in recent weeks were Columbus, Ohio, and Nashville, Tenn.

The Columbus school board appointed Gene T. Harris, a deputy superintendent for business and operations, to lead the 63,000-student district. Ms. Harris, who replaces Rosa A. Smith, has been an educator in the district since 1975 and spent three years as an assistant superintendent for public instruction for the Ohio Department of Education.

After Minneapolis Superintendent Carol Johnson turned down a chance to return to her home state and run Nashville’s public schools last month, that city’s school board turned to Pedro E. Garcia to fill the post. Mr. Garcia, the superintendent of the Corona-Norco Unified School District in Norco, Calif., will become the director of schools for the 69,000-student Nashville district this month.

The 210,000-student Houston district also named a new superintendent, Kaye Stripling, last month. She succeeds Rod Paige, who became U.S. secretary of education in January.

Other Searches

Meanwhile, Portland, Ore., is hunting for a new superintendent after the May resignation of Benjamin O. Canada, who had run the 54,000-student district since 1998.

Philadelphia is still conducting its search for a permanent replacement for David W. Hornbeck a year following his resignation from the 208,000-student district.

And in Kansas City, Mo., where embattled Superintendent Benjamin Demps Jr. abruptly resigned in April, Bernard Taylor Jr., Kansas City’s executive director of school leadership, was officially appointed superintendent of the 30,000-student system last month.

In another development in Kansas City, the federal court overseeing the desegregation order there has ordered an investigation of the school board. U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple ordered the court-appointed monitor to examine allegations that the board engages in “micromanagement and patronage.”

In Chicago, many observers applauded Mr. Duncan’s passion for education, instilled at a young age by his mother, a teacher who runs her own center for disadvantaged children in Chicago’s inner city.

Focus on Reading

Still, Mr. Duncan’s relative youth—he is 36—and his lack of administrative experience have raised some questions about his readiness for the CEO’s position.

Mr. Duncan dismissed concerns about his age in a recent interview, focusing instead on the 432,000-student district’s future. Crediting Mr. Vallas and former school board President Gery J. Chico, who also stepped down last month, with establishing labor peace and restoring the district’s financial stability, Mr. Duncan said that foundation would help him focus on educational issues—especially reading. Mayor Daley had publicly criticized stagnant and declining student test scores.

In Mr. Duncan, Chicago is hoping for a more “thoughtful and strategic” chief executive whose management style is more inclusive and collaborative, said Jacqueline C. Leavy, the executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a local nonprofit organization that monitors government spending.

Mr. Duncan, a Chicago native, said he would like to replicate his mother’s work in the public schools. Still, he added: “My challenge and our goal is how we do that on a broad scale.”

Superintendents in Clark County, Nev., Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York City came on board in 2000, while the superintendent in Broward County, Fla., was hired in 1999. Those districts and Chicago, Miami-Dade County, Houston, and Philadelphia are the nation’s 10 largest.

Though nine of the districts have undergone a leadership makeover over the past two years, Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, pointed out that those changes were preceded in many cases by several years of stable leadership.

For example, Rudolph F. Crew was New York’s schools chancellor for five years, and both Mr. Hornbeck and Mr. Vallas served for six years.

Trouble in Miami

Miami-Dade County Superintendent Roger C. Cuevas, who is now the longest-serving big-city superintendent, with five years on the job, and whose contract was extended to 2005 last year, meanwhile is facing opposition from his school board. Board members tried unsuccessfully to demote him to deputy superintendent last month following the revelation of several mishandled land deals by the district.

School board member Marta Pérez, who made the proposal, said she would try to remove Mr. Cuevas from the helm of the 361,000-student district again because the makeup of the nine- member board is changing. A special election ousted one board member supportive of Mr. Cuevas. Gov. Jeb Bush also is expected to replace a suspended board member.

Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va., said that as long as accountability in education is centralized, while authority is dispersed, the superintendency will remain a volatile position.

“The people who tend to go into it are missionaries,” he said. “The ones who have been successful wear out.”

Some schools chiefs are bucking the national statistics by exceeding the urban superintendent’s average 21/2-year tenure in office.

Rochester, N.Y.'s Clifford B. Janey accepted his third contract extension last month, which would bring his tenure in the 37,000-student district to a total of nine years, ending in 2004.

The school board of the often- turbulent District of Columbia system unanimously agreed to offer Superintendent Paul L. Vance a three-year contract last month, after he had finished a year leading the 72,000-student district in the nation’s capital.

In Boston, the school committee this month will consider extending Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant’s contract to 2005, which means he could serve the 64,000-student district for a decade. Although some residents oppose the extension, Mayor Thomas M. Menino backs it.

Mr. Casserly said a recent study of urban student achievement on state tests found that most districts showing consistent gains had long-serving superintendents.

Bolgen Vargas, the president of Rochester’s school board, said the constant churn of superintendents is detrimental to any positive school reform.

“School boards—we need to get our act together,” Mr. Vargas said. “School boards need to be good choosers and good keepers.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Chicago Chief Named Amid Urban Turnover

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