School & District Management

Several City Districts In Hunt for New Leaders

By Catherine Gewertz — July 10, 2002 4 min read
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In the latest turn of the revolving door that has come to symbolize the job, three urban superintendents are out and one is in.

The leaders of the Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Milwaukee districts are leaving their posts, and the temporary superintendent of the Miami-Dade County schools has become permanent.

The three departures follow a pattern that has become the norm in the complex world of big-city school management: Urban superintendents, on average, keep their jobs about 21/2 years.

By that standard, all three men who announced their resignations in the last month opted to stay a bit longer than most: Steven J. Adamowski headed the 42,000- student Cincinnati district for four years, while Alphonse G. Davis had spent three years at the helm of the 75,000-student New Orleans district, as did Spencer Korte in the 102,000-student Milwaukee district.

The board of the nation’s fourth-largest school system, Florida’s 370,000-student Miami-Dade, voted June 19 to extend for at least two more years the contract of Merrett R. Stierheim.

The veteran county manager was hired last fall as interim superintendent after questions about the district’s financial management led to the ouster of his predecessor, Roger Cuevas.

Job Openings

Question marks, meanwhile, hang over the leadership of the public schools in at least three other cities.

Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy of New York City has agreed to stay on through December while Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who recently was given broad control of the 1.1 million- student school system, considers whom he will appoint to that job.

Portland, Ore., also continued to seek a superintendent after four finalists bowed out of the running in the 54,000-student district this spring.

In Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission was considering finalists for a chief executive officer to lead the 200,000-student district as it embarks on a large-scale improvement campaign in its lowest-performing schools.

The commission was appointed by Pennsylvania’s governor and the city’s mayor to run the schools after a state takeover in December.

The new schools chief in Philadelphia will face a big job as the district undertakes the nation’s largest experiment in privatization. Twenty-eight of its schools will be run by for-profit school- management companies, including 20 by Edison Schools Inc., the largest such operator of public schools. Forty-two additional schools will be operated jointly by nonprofit and community groups in a bid to turn around the academically struggling district.

Gov. Mark S. Schweiker of Pennsylvania, a key champion of the privatization plan, has pledged coats of fresh paint and thousands of new textbooks by fall. He helped persuade the state legislature to approve $75 million for the beleaguered district. The local teachers’ union and others remain skeptical, saying the lack of a concrete plan for academic improvement doesn’t bode well.

‘A Gem’

The Miami-Dade County school board’s decision to extend Mr. Stierheim’s tenure means he will continue the work he has begun on ethics and management reforms. Two of the nine members of the board and several state lawmakers had advocated conducting a national search for a superintendent. But the other seven—backed by the local teachers’ union—lined up behind extending Mr. Stierheim’s contract.

“We have here a gem whom everyone agrees is honest and competent, everything we’re looking for,” said Michael Krop, the board’s vice chairman.

In Milwaukee, Mr. Korte’s June 14 announcement that he will leave the district on July 31 caught some of his strongest backers by surprise. Despite an April election that produced a clear school board majority supportive of his main initiatives—such as giving more power to principals and returning more children to their neighborhood schools— Mr. Korte cited the board as the pivotal reason for his departure.

In recent weeks, even some of his supporters on the board had been critical of him. He told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper that no clear consensus existed among board members about the district’s direction, and that he doubted the board would give him the additional “leverage” he believes is necessary to comply with the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which mandates improvement in student performance and teacher qualifications.

In New Orleans, Mr. Davis resigned in a two-line letter to his school board dated June 13, saying he would stay only until his contract expired on Dec. 31. The Orleans Parish school board bought out the remainder of his contract for $67,000 and agreed that his last day would be July 8. A search committee was being formed to find a replacement.

Mr. Davis, a retired colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps with no experience managing public schools, departs after a rough few months, which included the announcement of declining student test scores and an investigation into whether his father, a high school janitor, had earned more than $85,000 in overtime pay during 21/2 years. (“State Probes La. District on Overtime,” June 12, 2002.)

Observers expected an upcoming performance review of the superintendent to be less than glowing. At a budget meeting on the day of his resignation, Mr. Davis said simply: “It’s time.”

To the north, in Cincinnati, Mr. Adamowski announced his resignation after a school board meeting on June 24. He intends to do training and research on school leadership at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.

In his resignation letter, he said his departure comes at a “natural point” for a transition because he believes most of his chief goals have been met. He noted that the district is no longer classified by the state as being in academic emergency and is in a stronger financial position. The school system also has begun overhauling aging buildings and restructuring low-performing schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Several City Districts In Hunt for New Leaders

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