DPS not alone in choosing outsider

Big-city districts pick superintendents who lack K-12 experience

By Kevin Vaughan
The Rocky Mountain News
July 5, 2005

The ascension of Michael Bennet - attorney, businessman, mayoral aide - to head Denver Public Schools was in keeping with a once-novel practice that today is almost . . . well, common.

San Diego. New York. Chicago. Philadelphia. Los Angeles.


The list of big-city school systems that have turned to superintendents from outside the world of K-12 education is long, encompassing perhaps one in five urban districts across the country. Some cities already have moved on from the first outsider superintendent to a second.

Bennet, in fact, follows Jerry Wartgow, another "nontraditional" superintendent, who had spent his career in higher education before taking the helm at DPS in 2001.

For school boards looking for superintendents, there's appeal to reaching outside the academic world to find candidates who have proved themselves in business, in management, in the military.

A fresh face. A fresh perspective. Fresh ideas.

"The advantage is that you come in with a clean slate, that you don't have any preconceived or cultural biases about how things should or shouldn't work," said Phil Fox, deputy director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. "The biggest disadvantage is that you come to the job with no biases and you don't know how things work."

Bringing in an outsider can even break open long-held animosities between school administrators and employee unions.

"They bring a fresh perspective to the relationship and don't get caught up in the old us-versus-them mentality," said Tim Quinn, director of the Broad Urban Superintendent's Academy, which runs annual training sessions for top school administrators.

The idea of going outside the education establishment for a superintendent first flowered in the mid-1990s. And the poster child for the outsider superintendent was John Stanford, a retired Army major general who took over the Seattle school system in 1995. He made headlines his first day on the job, proposing that administrators spend a day a week working in schools and announcing that poor customer service would be grounds for termination. Within days, he launched a new reading program, vowed to hold back students when they failed to meet academic standards, and directed that school building projects would get done on time and on budget.

He quickly became a Seattle folk hero.

His death from leukemia in 1999 sparked such an outpouring of grief that officials had counselors in every school to help children deal with his passing.

By then, a national trend had been born.

"I think it really started with a desire by school boards and others in the cities to pump some new blood into urban education, and to seek leadership in places that they hadn't tapped before," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Great City Schools.

Outsiders bring new ideas about management, operations and leadership. They recruit other administrators from a wide variety of areas. The Boulder school district dipped its toes into the nontraditional water in 1997, hiring career Navy man Tom Seigel as superintendent.

The results were mixed.

He boosted morale and helped pass a bond issue. But he sparked controversy by closing schools. His tenure in Boulder ended when his contract was not renewed in 2000.

Today, Seigel is beginning his fifth year as superintendent of the Bethel school district in Washington state. He said that being an outsider helped him make some of the difficult decisions that came during his tenure.

"Coming from the outside is probably a net good because you don't have any personal loyalties to anything or anybody," he said.

Seigel also said his military background - where he never picked those who worked under him and never picked his supervisors - was also a plus because it helped him learn to work with many kinds of people.

"I've told people, 'You don't have to like me, you don't have to be loyal to me - just be loyal to the mission and we'll get along,' " he said.

That quality - having advantages merely by way of not having allegiances to anyone inside the district - has been painted as one of the key attributes of a nontraditional candidate.

Bennet, who spent the past two years as Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's chief of staff, has a varied background. A lawyer by training, he worked in the U.S. Justice Department before coming to Denver to work for billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Perhaps not a true outsider, Bennet is well-familiar with Denver's school system, having worked side by side with Hickenlooper as the mayor made DPS a central part of his agenda.

When voters approved a DPS bond issue and mill levy in November 2003, Bennet was at the victory party.

Casserly, with the Council of Great City Schools, said some nontraditional superintendents, especially those from the private sector, may not be prepared to work under the public microscope and may not be ready for the harshness of public debate.

Bennet, however, should be familiar with both, having spent two years in an office whose every move is followed publicly, and having helped navigate elections on a new justice center, on new employment rules and on a new mass-transit system.

In the end, it's all about the same things: managing people, solving problems, improving performance.

"The truth of the matter is, the challenges they face don't change, regardless of how you got to that seat and from where you came," Casserly said. "It doesn't make any difference whether they call you superintendent or CEO or grand poobah - the challenges are exactly the same."

But Casserly said there's no guarantee an outsider will succeed - any more than there's a guarantee an insider will.

"What most of these cities have found over the years is that nontraditional superintendents can work quite well, but there is no magic in having picked them," he said.

"There are examples of nontraditionals who have fallen flat on their faces, just like there are traditionals who have fallen flat on their faces."

Unconventional hires

Michael Bennet's appointment as superintendent of Denver Public Schools is the latest in a series of hirings of "nontraditional" candidates to lead large districts. Here is a look at some other notable hirings:

Paul Vallas: Former city of Chicago budget director was named superintendent of the city's school system in 1995. He eliminated a projected budget deficit of $1.3 billion and oversaw a broad overhaul of the district's operations.

Notable: Left the Chicago school system in 2001, and the following year was appointed to take over the school district of Philadelphia.

John Stanford: The retired Army major general took over as superintendent of the Seattle school district on Sept. 1, 1995, launching a series of changes and presiding over gradually rising test scores.

Notable: Died in office four years later after a battle with leukemia.

Roy Romer: Three-term governor of Colorado became superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District on July 1, 2000.

Notable: Took over the nation's second largest district, once described by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan as "the most dysfunctional bureaucracy in the history of the world." Had his contract extended twice - it now runs into 2007 - after overseeing changes in academic programs that have been followed by improvements in test scores. Has also led an effort to build 160 new schools by 2012.

Julius W. Becton: Retired Army lieutenant general took over as chief executive officer of the District of Columbia Public Schools in November 1996, but retired in June 1998, earlier than expected.

Notable: Left office in the midst of controversies over the district's finances, staff cuts and stagnant reading scores.

Joel Klein: Former assistant attorney general in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust division was appointed in July 2002 to be chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, a system with 1,350 schools, more than 1.1 million students, 140,000 employees and a $15 billion budget.

Notable: Is pushing a reform agenda dubbed "Children First." It is aimed at creating a single approach to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, working more closely with students' families, transforming principals into "instructional leaders," and reorganizing the department's management structure.

Allen Bersin: Former U.S. attorney took the helm of the San Diego Unified School District in July 1998, launching a major reorganization of the administration.

Notable: Raised test scores but clashed frequently with some educators, community members and school board representatives, and announced his resignation in January with a year left on his contract.


For related letters and articles, see the NYC HOLD page Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.

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