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Hear the Echoes #16 - Friday, May 6, 2011
Hear the Echoes No. 16

Competency or Connections?

Launching a New Superintendency


Indianapolis Public School Superintendent, Eugene White’s base salary for 2009 amounted to $188,000 to manage 64 schools and more than 33,372 students.  The Recovery School District operates 33 directly run schools, and another 51 RSD-chartered schools with about 27,000 students combined in the 2008-09 school year. John White, the incoming Superintendent, will be paid $281,000.


It should be noted that the 51 schools that are RSD charters operate virtually independent of central office management. 

Many New Orleans residents have expressed concern that the local school district is outsourcing to find leadership.

"It’s kind of interesting that we’re permanently able to not run our own affairs,” Tulane University Sociology Department Chair Carl Bankston said. "Normally, school boards hire locally-elected officials. Here, we have somebody from Chicago replaced by somebody from New York. It looks like schools are being permanently run from the outside.” (Tulane Hulabaloo, Jessica Appelbaum, April 15, 2011).

In addition to what Bankston observed is the fact that Paul Pastorek, Paul Vallas and John White are totally lacking the minimal educational credentials to manage even a single school.

Nontraditional superintendents, who are accomplished leaders in other arenas, can bring critically needed strengths and experiences to the job, including:
• Experience managing large, complex, diverse operations;
• Experience leading large-scale systems change and culture changes;
• Skills in strategic visioning, planning and accountability;
• Expertise in financial management; and
• Skills in systems and operational management


Little in that listing includes stakeholder relations when the stakeholders can either support or destroy visions of sugar plumbs.  Research clearly indicates that education leadership at the building level is key to education reform, and none of these non-education leaders are even qualified to run a public school.


A casual review of the performance record of Mr. White reveals mixed reviews with some substantial dissatisfaction among parents and students.  Much of that was on how allocation of space, particularly for charter schools, seemed arbitrary and sometimes capricious.  This has been a sore point in New Orleans since Katrina.  A seemingly high handed and unilateral decision about facility assignment lies at the heart of distrust of the RSD by many parents and by the Orleans Parish School Board.


Most nontraditional superintendents come to their new responsibilities without the experience of dealing with people who are not dependent on the organization for their daily bread.  They rarely face students, parents, or community stakeholders from the vantage point of meaningful public input.  Therefore, the sometimes laudable vision they embrace comes with little or no stakeholder input.


It appears as if Mr. White will be moving from a very large system which is transitioning in its top management and whose student achievement claims are being revealed to be more than highly questionable.  He moves into an RSD that is much smaller, with much stakeholder opposition, with a record of arbitrariness in critical facility decisions, and with the minimal support of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).


His being paid almost $100,000 more per year than his counterpart in Indiana, who manages the education of at least 10,000 more students, and which salary exceeds any other public school superintendent in Louisiana’s 69 districts raises still other reservations about the appointment.


The manner in which Superintendent Pastorek conducted his private search to fill departing Paul Vallas’ position, coupled with failure to disclose financial negotiations until after the appointment was given an OK by BESE has caught the eye of some powerful legislators who have raised the question of White’s pay level in a time of fiscal crisis.


The fact that Pastorek now presides over a department that employs 45 executives with pay grades in excess of $100,000, and many of them paid over $150,000, seems hard to justify in light of the cuts to most public education budgets. 


The decision to charge Mr. White with the difficult task of running the RSD leaves education stakeholders hoping he will succeed but maintaining serious reservations about a local school leader, without the accepted credentials to even be a principal, coming from a totally strange environment, and without an inkling of the culture of New Orleans being successful.


Part of the baggage Mr. White carries into New Orleans can be viewed in his video presentations in a series of town-hall type forums on school closings and facility assignment.  These issues entitled, "Competency or Connections?” touch on many of the  same sore points with the RSD stakeholder and presents a daunting task for him in his relationship with them.  


A further challenge he will face is that he must not just come to understand New Orleans cultural differences to anything in his experience, but he is also responsible for leading Baton Rouge, Pointe Coupee, Caddo, and St. Helena schools also taken over by the RSD.  The complexity of these different school climates simply provide White with a very steep learning curve and little public patience in an election year to adjust to it.


Don Whittinghill

LSBA Consultant


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