Ill Will Comes With Territory In Takeovers

By Caroline Hendrie — June 12, 1996 11 min read
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In a distressed school district on the outskirts of Dallas, federal agents blew through one day this spring like a Texas tornado.

Whisking away file cabinets, boxes, and computer disks, FBI and IRS investigators turned the offices of the Wilmer-Hutchins school district upside down in their search for evidence of suspected criminal activity.

Yet as startling as the April raid was to the 3,800-student district, it was only the latest sign of trouble for a system dogged by reports of missing money and equipment, a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, and dismal student achievement.

In fact, conditions have gotten to the point where the Texas Education Agency is poised to push local officials aside and put its own people in charge.

If that happens, Wilmer-Hutchins will join the growing list of school districts that states have taken over in hopes of curing everything from rampant cronyism and fiscal mismanagement to rock-bottom test scores and soaring dropout rates.

With states placing renewed emphasis on school accountability in recent years, there has been a spate of such hands-on interventions since 1989, when Jersey City, N.J., became the nation’s first fully state-run local district.

Still, such actions remain relatively rare, and policy experts say there is a dearth of research on their effectiveness. Though analysts generally agree that takeovers seem to be yielding more gains in the central office than the classroom, they also say the evidence of how well such actions are working is largely anecdotal.

But one theme has emerged clearly from the nation’s limited experience with state-managed districts: Anyone who takes on a takeover should be prepared for some pretty rough sledding.

‘Expect a Fight’

In case after case, when state administrators have tried to elbow out local officials and run a failing district themselves, improvements have come at the heavy cost of lawsuits, bitter media battles, and confused and angry teachers and parents.

“They should expect a fight--always,” said Tanya M. Suarez, an education professor at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, N.C. “In this country, we want accountability but we also want local control, and that’s why you get the fight.”

Though many state administrators are becoming careful to couch their missions in terms of helping districts help themselves, strife and ill will nearly always come with the territory.

“I live 30 miles outside of Newark,” said Ronald Hyman, a Rutgers University education professor, referring to the latest New Jersey district seized by the state. “And I can feel the hostility all the way from here.”

Rescue vs. Occupation

Because no two school systems and no two state laws are the same, every takeover is different.

Some, such as those in Cleveland; Compton, Calif.; and East St. Louis, Ill., were triggered primarily by a district’s chronic inability to pay its bills.

Others, including those in New Jersey, arose from a set of circumstances sometimes referred to as “educational bankruptcy"--poor student performance, inept administration, and corrupt governance.

In some cases, takeovers stem from state policies that spell out a succession of sanctions for academic, fiscal, or administrative failings that culminates in loss of local control. Others have resulted from legislation targeting a single troubled district.

Despite these differences, however, interviews with dozens of officials involved with takeovers across the country suggest that one thing they have in common is an adversarial nature that makes conflict hard to avoid.

“When a state says, ‘We’re going to take you over,’ what they get is a hell of a lot of hostility,” said Mr. Hyman, who thinks policymakers should eschew terms such as “takeover” and “bankruptcy” that were borrowed from the corporate world. “It isn’t supposed to be that way.”

Bitter Clashes

Nevertheless, examples of such conflicts abound:

  • Letcher County, Ky. Since assuming control of the public schools in this ailing corner of Appalachia two years ago, state education leaders have been locked in continual battles with local officials. (See chart, page 13.)

    Two successive state education chiefs have tried to strip the school board of its powers, only to be thwarted in court.

    In the latest round, Commissioner of Education Wilmer Cody suspended the local board’s authority in January on the grounds that it was disruptive and obstructionist.

    After facing the prospect of being held in contempt of an earlier court ruling, however, the commissioner agreed to let board members resume meeting. But he retains veto power and can initiate actions if the board fails to fulfill its obligations.

  • East St. Louis, Ill. A three-member panel appointed by the state has been working since October 1994 to clean up this destitute district’s chaotic fiscal operations. The panel has had frequent, bitter clashes with the school board, which state managers say has often defied their directives and ignored their requests for information.

    In late March, the state panel dissolved the board. But a state judge has reinstated its members on grounds that they had not been given due process and that local voters had effectively been disenfranchised by their ouster. (See Education Week, May 15, 1996.)

  • Roosevelt, N.Y. In June of last year, New York launched its first state takeover in this impoverished enclave in the heart of Long Island.

    Frustrated by repeated conflicts, the three-member state management team disbanded the entire school board in January, charging it with severe mismanagement and resistance to change.

    Two board members, including the chairwoman, promptly sued the state for $8 million. Among other charges, they claim that the state singled out Roosevelt because it is nearly all black and that residents were denied their voting rights by the board’s removal.

    Elections were held last month for a new five-member board, which now has little more than advisory powers. Under state law, ousted board members are barred from seeking their old seats for a year.

  • Compton, Calif. Relations between state and local officials have been rocky ever since the state legislature authorized a takeover in June 1993 after bailing out the district with a $20 million loan.

    The tension crested in January when four of seven board members sued for a return of their powers, arguing that the takeover was unconstitutional.

    The board members accused J. Jerome Harris, who ran the district for the state for two years ending in February, of authoritarian and wasteful management. Mr. Harris, who was replaced by the more conciliatory Dhayan Lal this winter, said the board members merely wanted their access to patronage jobs restored.

Tugs of War

The criticism of Mr. Harris has become an issue in New Jersey, where he is the state education commissioner’s choice to become the next superintendent of the state-run Jersey City schools.

A vote by the state school board on Mr. Harris’ appointment has been delayed for two months as investigators look into his past, which includes a stormy tenure as chief of the Atlanta schools in 1989-90. (See Education Week, May 3, 1989.)

Experts say tugs of war in takeovers are no surprise, given the strong American tradition of home rule. And some say such power struggles may actually be useful.

“They may be a necessary part of the process of institutionalizing changes in the way that school districts are administered locally,” said Jim Parks, a spokesman for the Kentucky education department.

But some complain that showdowns with local officials slow the overhaul of management practices, drain resources from educational reforms, and reinforce community resentments.

Daniel Domenech, the head of the state oversight panel in Roosevelt, and Richard Mark, his counterpart in East St. Louis, both said local resistance impeded their work.

“This process could have worked a lot quicker and we could have had a lot more success if there had been cooperation by the board and superintendent. But without that cooperation, it’s a battle every day to get the most minor issue resolved,” Mr. Mark said. “If you want to see results quickly, you just have to remove the board and superintendent.”

Cost of Conflict

In response to the difficulties Mr. Mark’s panel has faced, the Illinois legislature recently spelled out more clearly the state’s powers in involuntary takeovers. But it left unaddressed the issue of removing board members, pending the state’s appeal of the East St. Louis board’s reinstatement.

Kathy Christie, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver, said states that don’t give their managers broad and unequivocal authority are asking for trouble.

“The law needs to be strong enough to give the state some leverage so you don’t hit barricade after barricade,” she said. “There should be movement from day one in a district that has been taken over, but that hasn’t always happened. They’ve tended to drag on.”

Board members in such districts, on the other hand, often say it is their duty to oppose state actions that they believe run counter to their communities’ best interests.

In Cleveland--an unusual case in that its takeover was ordered by a federal judge--board member Joseph Costanzo said he and other members play a valuable role despite their lack of authority.

State officials “were not brought in to keep this crummy, malfunctioning district the same, yet that’s what they’re doing,” Mr. Costanzo said. “But it would be even worse if the board weren’t here, because you’d have no watchdog at all.”

In New Jersey, which has the nation’s most extensive experience with takeovers, the state’s powers are unusually far-reaching. As required by law, the local boards, superintendents, and other top administrators were immediately ousted when the state’s three largest districts were taken over--Jersey City in 1989, Paterson in 1991, and Newark in 1995.

Elected officials in all three districts resisted intervention, and many school employees and community members resented the intrusion. But once in, state managers could take charge without constantly battling entrenched officials.

“I was able to move the first-year agenda without any impediments,” said Beverly Hall, the state-appointed superintendent in Newark.

Back to the Future?

That may be starting to change, however, now that board members in Jersey City and Paterson have regained at least nominal power as a prelude to eventual restoration of home rule.

The advisory boards formed there after intervention are gradually becoming elected bodies. And while the state superintendent retains final say, they now vote on curricular, legal, and fiscal affairs.

In Paterson, board members joined union leaders this spring in strongly opposing Superintendent Laval S. Wilson’s plan for privatizing custodial and security services. Mr. Wilson ultimately decided to move ahead with the privatization, but the pressure prompted him to engage in intense last-minute talks aimed at devising an alternative.

And in both Paterson and Jersey City, administrators or trustees displaced by the takeovers gained seats on the school board this spring.

Notable among them was Franklin Williams, Jersey City’s ousted superintendent, who campaigned fiercely against the state administrators.

To some observers, this resurgence of the old guard symbolizes the challenge states face in bringing enduring change to failed districts.

“When you go in and clean up, you make an enemy of all those people you cleaned up,” said Frank L. Smith, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City who is involved in a Paterson effort aimed at fostering school-based governing capacity. “So when you turn the school board back to the community, you turn it back to the local political machine, whose power never went away.”

Need for Research

Peter B. Contini, an assistant education commissioner in New Jersey, said his department is studying how to prevent districts from backsliding when a takeover ends. He and other state administrators emphasized that the key to long-term change is training communities to value services for children more than jobs for adults.

In Texas, Commissioner of Education Mike Moses said that kind of reform is his goal in the proposed takeover of the troubled Wilmer-Hutchins schools.

“We are intervening in the Wilmer-Hutchins district to be helpful, not hurtful,” Mr. Moses said in a statement. “We want this intervention to bring long-term, systemic change in the district.”

Yet as he and other state officials approach that task around the nation, they have little research to draw on for guidance about what works and what doesn’t in state-operated school districts.

“When people ask me who the experts are on state takeovers, I say I don’t know,” said Ms. Christie, of ECS. “Somewhere there should be a university committed to getting in there and really studying these things. Because if it’s not playing out, why do it?”

Yet analysts warn that even with more research, no magic formula for success is likely to emerge--in part because of the diverse conditions prevailing in troubled districts.

“The goal should always be to nurture the capacity of local people, from teachers to boards of education, to do their own work more effectively,” said Thomas Sobol, a professor at Teachers College who was New York state’s education commissioner from 1987 to 1995. “But the tactics will be different every time.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 1996 edition of Education Week as Ill Will Comes With Territory In Takeovers

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