Column: U.S. education experts meet with biz leaders
By Maria Saporta
Friday, February 25, 2011
With several metro Atlanta public school systems seeking new superintendents, community leaders sought answers from national education experts during a panel discussion hosted by The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation on Feb. 21.
Several questions were asked. Should a board be elected or appointed? Should a superintendent be an education professional or a nontraditional executive? Should a local school system be under the mayor’s control, should it be under the governor’s control or should it be independent?
After much discussion, the consensus that emerged is that the community needs to have vision of what it wants its school system to be and then do everything it can to support the implementation of that vision.
Of particular focus is the Atlanta Public Schools. The system is currently on probation for its accreditation because of dysfunction and friction on its board. It also is facing several investigations on a test-cheating scandal. And its nationally respected superintendent — Beverly Hall — has announced she’s leaving at the end of the school year after more than 10 years at the helm.
“I have no doubt that this city is going to meet the challenges that the school system is going through right now,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in kicking off the program. “Even with the challenges with the testing scandal and the cheating scandal, we have made progress.“
Andres Alonso, a reform superintendent who is CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools, said community builders should seek the leadership and vision that works for them.
“People look for someone to come in and wave a magic wand. That may work for a little while, but not forever,” Alonso said. “The right question is what is the vision of where a community wants to go. … The right answer is that it’s about people and political courage. Ninety percent of this job is about guts. The easiest thing to do is to do nothing.”
In his case, a state and city partnership oversees the Baltimore school system. The governor of Maryland and the mayor of Baltimore jointly appoint the system’s board members.
“I have a structure that works for me,” Alonso said. “The board is astonishingly autonomous from the mayor and the governor. I have closed 26 schools in three years. There’s no way I could have done that if I had people being elected making those decisions. I like mayoral control if you have the right mayor.”
A problem that superintendents have is that the community either turns them into a messiah or a scapegoat. But that is unfair because the system works only when there’s a partnership between the educators, the business community, parents and civic leaders, according to several on the panel.
Given the division on Atlanta’s board, the system could have difficulty finding a top superintendent. Gerard Robinson, Virginia’s secretary of education, said it is logical to ask about who would come into an unsure situation, but that should not stop the community from moving forward.
“I wouldn’t focus so much on having a dysfunctional board,” Robinson said. “You are a capital city, and you are a recognizable capital city. When you think of Georgia, you think of Atlanta. You have the opportunity to bring someone to the city who can become a marketer of your city, not just a superintendent of schools.”
After the program, Reed said: “We are trying to resolve the governance issue in a way that moves the community. What we really want to happen is for the process to work through the school board.”
Literacy Action seeks chief
The president of Literacy Action — Emily Ellison — is leaving the adult literacy organization March 4 to return to the Atlanta Girl’s School as its director of advancement. Ellison was a co-founder of the Atlanta Girl’s School and was its founding board chair.
Dave Peterson, who is chairing the Literacy Action board and is founder of North Highland Co., said a search is under way for Ellison’s successor.
Meanwhile, Paige Pushkin, the organization’s director of operations, has agreed to serve as the interim president, but she has said she is not interested in the job permanently.
When Ellison joined the organization four and a half years ago, Peterson said, it was a “turnaround situation.” Now it has increased both its fundraising and its outreach through more classes and students.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Ellison said. “It’s been one of the most exciting times in my life, and I hope I can stay involved in some way forever.”
Ellison said the job gave her a greater appreciation for all the difficulties that confront adults who can’t read. It is estimated that more than 800,000 Atlantans are functionally illiterate.
Delta CEO bullish on city
Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc., is bullish about Atlanta. Sitting casually at the State of Atlanta Business Breakfast on Feb. 22, Anderson said the city “is incredibly well-positioned” when compared to other cities in the United States.
“Every city, county and state in the country is in real financial difficulty,” Anderson said, adding that several have overtaxed their residents and home industries. “Given our relative positioning, we can come out of the current economic difficulties much stronger,” Anderson added. “It is a vibrant community that’s well-located and has a bias toward economic development. The city of Atlanta and this region can really do well.”
Anderson has agreed to chair a task force for the Atlanta Committee for Progress to look at the city’s business model and try to make it as competitive as possible. But before his task force is activated, Anderson said the city must figure out its pension situation.