Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Decision Time in the Ville

For lunch today, the Jefferson County Board of Education is chewing over what to do with their two finalists for superintendent. Both candidates have come under fire for their vague stances on Jefferson County's student assignment plan and at least three groups, including the Courier-Journal have called for a new search.

KSN&C did not do a complete review of the candidates, but did spend about 4 hours poking around the public record on the candidates. Both Christine Johns, superintendent in Utica, Michigan and Donna Hargens, chief academic officer for Wake County, N.C. appear to be competent administrators who can do the hard word of the superintendency. Both come from tough circumstances.

A board of education source tells KSN&C that CCSSO Executive Director Gene Wilhoit reached out to education leaders in Michigan and North Carolina and was told that both women were solid.

Christine Johns has served in Michigan where the recession has hit hard and politicians have taken it out on the schools. In March 2010 she closed four schools to balance a $33 million budget shortfall. But that was only the most recent in a depressing string of reductions over the prior seven years that caused Utica to cut $47 million, laying off 400 employees, slashing administrative salaries and implementing employee furloughs.John's moved to privatize custodial services in an effort to save about $4 million per year. Lamenting the cuts, in March 2009 Johns told the legislature, "if we want high-quality schools, we have to pay for them."

The daughter of a repeatedly laid off steelworker, Johns said she learned a critical lesson about the value of education. With a Bachelors from Pitt and a reputation for championing the underdog, Johns has been seen as hard-driving, ambitious and trailblazing. She was at Harvard GSE before it's sold out to Wall Street, but still seems to maintain the Broad/Gates/Bush/Obama free marketish, school turnaround game plan.

Often the bridesmaid, in April 2003 Johns was a finalist in Seminole County Florida. In June 2005 she was a finalist in St. Mary's County Maryland. In April 2005 John's was a finalist in Evergreen Washington. In July 2005 she was a finalist for the Pittsburgh job. The Plain Dealer cited her Harvard doctorate and said she "created a buzz in education circles." August 2005 the Cleveland Plain Dealer identified John's as one of seven people qualified to lead Cleveland schools.

Johns was trained in the high profile management program for urban superintendents funded by the Broad Center for Management of School Systems, which emphasizes innovation and competition in school management. A big improving-student-achievement-through-school reform focus.

July 2007 Johns paid her own way on a tour of schools in China.

In August 2008 health care and wages were still being negotiated with the Utica Education Association and teachers started school without a contract. Those issues were apparently resolved without job actions.

Johns told the Courier-Journal she supports diversity as a concept. And she says she has views on Meredith v Jefferson County…but her vagueness prevents me from telling you what they are.

Donna Hargens, while Chief Academic Officer in Wake County North Carolina,  ran a zero tolerance disciplinary program that was objected to by the NAACP for its suspension of more than 1000 students - disproportionately minority. Most districts nationally abandoned zero tolerance programs much earlier. Wake County abandoned their program last month.

In May, Hargens approved a transfer for a board member's daughter. That met with objections, followed by a new board policy requiring full board approval of such actions. Apparently of 143,000 Wake County students, only 15 transfers were approved under a "best interest" policy which required no paperwork. The affair was suspicious for favoritism.

News stories out of Wake County make it sound like a snake pit. The board of education appears to be quite dysfunctional politically right now. It is the kind of place where, following election to nonpartisan races, the elected thank political parties for their support. On a rare unanimous vote, Hargens served as interim superintendent, following the protest resignation of the former superintendent when the Wake County board abandoned its diversity plan.

North Carolina has non-partisan school board elections (but not really) for 9 seats. Wake County has lots of 5-4 votes. The county's conservative majority school board, which famously dismantled the districts' economically-based student assignment policy in favor of a neighborhood plan, selected Fox News commentator and former Brig General Anthony Tata as superintendent on a 4-2 vote. The Democratic board members voting against Tata, praised Hargens. Secrecy surrounded the search. It was unclear from the public record that Hargens was a candidate, but she tells the JCPS Board that she was not. The public reportedly wanted a superintendent from outside Wake County. After his selection, Tata kept Hargens on as Chief Academic Officer, but one gets the sense that she began seeking greener pastures. The Vice Chair of the Wake Board called Hargens "a true professional" saying she doesn't know what Hargens views are on the districts diversity assignment policy. It would seem Hargens was chosen because the board thought she would do as told.

Hargens recommended the use of RTTT funds for recruitment bonuses, merit pay, additional technology.

Hargens had been an unsuccessful candidate for superintendent in New Hanover County in August 2010.  A Star News editorial called Hargens a “competent administrator” but says New Hanover board should choose a leader.

The News and Observer reported that Hargens dodged the issue of whether neighborhood schools will lead to resegregation. Hargens seemed to argue, as she has in Jefferson County, that she will do whatever the board says, calling it a "governance issue." New Hanover board chair said, "we know she's an excellent administrator… She sees the position of superintendent is to carry out the will of the school board. Right now that will of the board is neighborhood schools."

There is no substitute for strong leadership. JCPS should pass on Hargens.

This from the Courier-Journal:
JCPS board could make decision
next week on new superintendent
They interviewed with the school board, shook hands with parents and held private meetings with community leaders.

Now, the fate of the two finalists vying to lead the Kentucky's largest school system is in the hands of the Jefferson County Board of Education — who will meet Tuesday to evaluate the search, the candidates, consider community input and set a timeline for a decision.

The board may make a hire within a week, board Chairman Steve Imhoff said.

The finalists are Christine Johns, superintendent of Utica, Mich., Community Schools; and Donna Hargens, chief academic officer for Wake County, N.C., Public Schools.

Though praised for their professional accomplishments and academic experience, Johns and Hargens were criticized by the NAACP for refusing to take clear stands on Jefferson County's student-assignment plan and asked the board to reopen its search.

The Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission issued a similar call, arguing the hiring process was rushed.

But Imhoff, who has long supported efforts to keep schools integrated, said he's satisfied that both candidates sufficiently value diverse schools. As of Monday, he said he isn't inclined to ask the board to reopen the search...

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