School & District Management

Tell-All Book Offers Insight Into Board Politics

By Robert C. Johnston — October 04, 2000 3 min read
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For anyone who wants an inside look at how a superintendent and his board deal with the challenges of a major public school system, Donald R. McAdams serves up details in his new book, Fighting To Save Public Schools... and Winning! Lessons From Houston.

Donald R. McAdams

Mr. McAdams, a current Houston school board member who served on the panel with Rod Paige, now the district’s superintendent, declares unabashedly in the opening sentence that “this is a story of an intrepid band of school reformers who, against all odds, turned around one of the nation’s largest urban school districts.”

Published last spring by Teachers College Press, the 293-page, first-person account by the 10-year board veteran has enough meat for the policy wonk, with enough tell-all flavor to make it a good read.

“I wrote the book because I believe that urban school reform is a national priority, and writing about the Houston experience would not only help Houston, but the public in other urban areas,” said Mr. McAdams, 59, the father of two Houston public school students who directs the Center for Reform of School Systems at the University of Houston.

The improvement-minded group, which included Mr. Paige, coalesced in 1990 around a statement of its vision and beliefs that still guides the Houston Independent School District today.

To advance its policies, which called for decentralizing authority and strengthening accountability for student and staff performance, the board gently and not-so- gently shed itself of Superintendents Joan Raymond and Frank Petruzielo.

“We knew the stakes were high,” Mr. McAdams recalls of devising a strategy with board colleagues to terminate Ms. Raymond’s contract in 1991. “If we tried to fire her and failed, HISD would be in chaos.”

In the dramatic tone that runs through the book, he writes of the moment when the deciding vote was cast: “There was a gasp from the gallery. Joan Raymond was finished.”

When Mr. Petruzielo was recruited to lead the Broward County, Fla., schools, Mr. McAdams writes, the board was too tired by bruised relations between the chief and the city over his tax requests to tempt him to stay. “HISD was better for Frank’s coming,” he writes. “It would also be better for his leaving.”

‘Damned for Arrogance’

Readers also get a peek into the private maneuvering between Mr. McAdams and other board members to urge Mr. Paige to consider applying for the superintendent’s job. Once Mr. Paige acknowledged his interest, a cabal scrambled to avoid a national search and get enough pro-Paige votes when the right time came.

The ensuing uproar over Mr. Paige’s selection divided the community, as Hispanics charged they had been left out. Tensions grew so heated that the state education department threatened to sanction the district, a move stopped by then-Gov. Ann Richards.

“Rod, meanwhile, proved to be a brilliant superintendent,” Mr. McAdams writes. “Still, just as universally, the board members who selected him were damned for arrogance, stupidity, and worse for selecting him the way they did.”

As the book retraces pivotal decisions over nearly a decade, board members are often portrayed as mired in political self-interest, while district employee groups come across as powerful, turf-protecting obstructionists fearful of the new focus on student accountability.

When the reform-minded majority is threatened by elections in 1995, Mr. Paige and his backers on the board resort to hardball to protect their interests, recruiting candidates and encouraging business leaders to support them.

When the votes came in and the news was good, Mr. McAdams writes: “The room erupted in shouts and applause. The reform of HISD would continue.”

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