Alphonse Davis doesn't seem to be the kind of guy who backs down from a challenge. In 27 years with the U.S. Marine Corps, he had served his country in various capacities around the world. But the call he received at the Pentagon in 1999 from his hometown of New Orleans dangled an unexpected challenge before him.

How would he like to run the New Orleans school system?

Technically, he didn't have the credentials for the job. He had two master's degrees and had run the Marines' officers candidate school, but he didn't have the educational certificates to be able to become a school superintendent. Community leaders eager to improve the struggling school district saw characteristics that mattered more than technical qualifications: a track record of leadership and capable management.

So the Orleans Parish School Board, after getting the Louisiana legislature to waive some requirements, hired Davis as chief executive officer of the 80,000-student district.

“They want change,” says Davis. “That's why they hired me.”

Davis is one of several people without experience in education management who have been lured into the field by the challenge of translating their management successes to the bureaucratic and tradition-bound world of school administration.

As school systems — especially large urban districts — struggle to improve academically and manage their facilities and finances more effectively, several have sought out leaders with business expertise outside the field of education. These newcomers to school administration have a varied background — law, finance, politics, military service — but in each case have demonstrated the talent for leadership that districts hope will translate into better-run schools and better-educated students.

“You have people around you who are experts on academics, operations, finance,” says Davis. “Your job is to kind of pull it all together. You have to do your homework and know exactly what you're getting into.”

Seeking candidates

Finding people qualified and willing to run a school system has become more difficult. The pool of available superintendents is shrinking as many administrators approach retirement age.

A 2000 survey of 1,719 superintendents conducted by the American Association of School Administrators and the National Center for Education Statistics found that 68 percent were between 50 and 59 years old, and 11 percent were 60 or older.

In addition, many lower-level school administrators have witnessed the headaches and lack of job security that come with a school superintendent's job, and choose not to pursue that risky career path. At the same time, as the public has demanded more accountability and results from its schools, board members and other community leaders unhappy with the results they have gotten from traditional methods have begun to look beyond the customary places to find management talent.

“It's typically the most troubled districts that tend to look for somebody from the private sector,” says Tim Quinn, managing director of the Broad Center for Superintendents, a non-profit organization that seeks to identify and train candidates to run urban school systems. “Those districts have had a string of traditional superintendents that haven't succeeded. That's when boards turn to the private sector.”

Fresh perspective

What many candidates from the private sector lack in educational expertise is counterbalanced by the qualities that made them successful in the business world — leadership and vision.

“Districts say, ‘We need a fresh look — someone who knows how to run a business and can handle the complexities of the job,’” says Quinn. “These people ordinarily come with an incredible set of skills, exactly what is needed for the chief executive officer of a large urban district.”

The training program Quinn runs includes both candidates who have spent their careers in education and those who have succeeded in the private sector, including former vice presidents of AT&T and Eastman Kodak and the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

“Many people who have made it in the private sector are looking for a way to make a contribution,” says Quinn. “They see it as a challenge. There's no better place to make a difference.”

Joseph Olchefske was an investment banker in Seattle in 1995, when former U.S. Army General John Stanford, the new school superintendent in Seattle, recruited Olchefske to be the district's chief financial officer. When Stanford became ill with leukemia, Olchefske became acting superintendent, and after Stanford died, Olchefske was named to lead the district.

“You have to be prepared to work,” says Olchefske. “The scope and scale of a school district is complex. We have 7,000 employees, 100 dispersed sites. The challenge is how to move an organization as broad and complex as that.”

Embracing change

For districts seeking an outsider to improve a struggling operation, the commitment to change has to run deeper than just bringing in one nontraditional administrator.

“No one should expect anyone to come in with all the answers,” says Davis.

Indeed, just because a superintendent comes from a non-education background doesn't mean he or she has any more job security than someone from a more traditional background. In the Kansas City, Mo., district, a track record of poor student performance and school board turmoil saw 19 people go through the revolving door of the superintendent's office in 30 years. In 1999, officials turned to Benjamin Demps, a former official with the Federal Aviation Administration in Oklahoma City.

But Kansas City continued to labor under a desegregation decree, the district's performance became so dismal that the State of Missouri took away its accreditation, and board meetings routinely dissolved into political squabbling. Demps lasted barely 20 months before the board fired him. A judge reinstated him briefly, but Demps decided he could no longer run the district and quit.

In Seattle, Olchefske says the school board is just as committed to changing the district as he is.

“You have to have an organization that wants to change,” says Olchefske. “Any organization has inertia. You have to confront that.”

In New Orleans, Davis says one of his biggest challenges is recruiting “good, committed people” to work in the district. A few of the top administrators he brought to the district did not work out and had to be replaced.

“Some blood has been spilled,” Davis says. “You have to develop a cadre of people you can trust.”

In Seattle, Olchefske was able to become acclimated to the district as chief financial officer before assuming the top job. His efforts to build his own team were made easier, he says, because at about the same time he became superintendent, much of Seattle's senior leadership was retiring.

“One of the key skills a superintendent needs is to be able to identify and select the right personnel,” says Olchefske.

Those people can fill the gaps in knowledge and experience and can free a chief executive to focus on the bigger picture.

“There is pressure driving you to pay attention to something today,” says Olchefske. “I try not to do this. I have other people do all those things so I can focus on the future and long-term strategy. You need to have ability to have clarity about your vision… strategic thinking skills.”

Getting bogged down in the countless problems that erupt each day in a school system can cause a leader to lose focus of the goal of improving the education of children.

“There are people with diverse agendas,” says Davis. “You have issues of poverty; you have federal and state regulations. You have to work with a board. And dealing with the media is a big part of it. It all can wear on you. You have to recommit and focus.”

A new career

With other options available to them, non-traditional administrators don't necessarily look at their move into education as irreversible.

“I don't see myself as a career superintendent,” says Olchefske. “I am enjoying this job tremendously, but I expect this to be my only superintendency.”

Davis, who came to New Orleans in large part because of his roots there, isn't sure whether his move into the education field is permanent.

“You don't stay forever,” he says. “A part of you would like to test your mettle someplace else. This is my hometown. Could I, would I, have done this anywhere else? I guess the jury is still out on that.”

Sidebar: His alma mater came calling

Roger Taylor was settling into retirement after a successful career that culminated with a partnership in a powerful Chicago law firm. He was serving as chairman of the board of trustees at his alma mater, Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., but mostly he was spending a lot of time relaxing on the front porch of his family farmhouse in Ellisville, Ill.

“I was filling my days,” Taylor recalls.

But then, Knox's president resigned in September 2001, and people at the college persuaded Taylor, a 1963 Knox graduate, to take the post on an interim basis.

“I thought it would be for a few months,” he says.

Although Taylor had no background in educational administration, the job suited him and the college so well that the school's trustees gave him the job on a permanent basis in February 2002.

Lack of experience in the education world hasn't prevented Taylor from taking charge of the 1,100-student liberal-arts college.

“At a school like ours, the president is a spokesperson, a symbol who promotes the college, both internally and externally,” says Taylor. “I don't have a PhD. I am not a scholar. But I wasn't hired to be a chief academic officer or a professor. I have the background and skills to do this job.”

To fill in the gaps in his knowledge of higher education, Taylor picks the brains of other administrators and staff members, and compiled a list of reading material. He also relies on the skills he honed as a litigator.

“I don't hesitate to ask questions,” he says. “I get a lot of input from other folks, and I am perfectly comfortable making decisions. As a lawyer, I was comfortable making decisions quickly based on imperfect information.”

In bringing a fresh perspective to the college's administration, Taylor doesn't routinely accept the status quo, but he doesn't reject it automatically, either. “I don't accept the answer, ‘That's the way we've always done it,’ but I'm very careful to listen to the staff,” he says. “We have good people here who are very dedicated.”

Another talent that Taylor developed as a lawyer that he relies on constantly is extemporaneous speaking. “I was used to getting up to speak before judges.”

Now he appears before groups to tout the virtues of Knox, hoping to lure students to enroll and donors to contribute. In eight months in the president's job, he has given talks to 49 different groups.

Taylor received a lot of attention on campus shortly after becoming president when he accompanied some of the custodial staff to clean bathrooms on campus. “I wanted to show support for the staff, and show people that I'm not a stuffed shirt.”

In the meantime, retirement on the farm will have to wait. Taylor says he has told the board that he would stay in the president's job for five to seven years.

“I wouldn't think about being a college or university administrator anywhere else,” says Taylor. “But I wouldn't have thought about becoming an administrator here, either.”

Sidebar: Leading the trend

Here are some of the school districts that have turned to leaders from outside the field of education to lead their systems:

  • Chicago: Paul Vallas, the city's former budget director, was chosen by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1995 to serve as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools. One of the first non-educators to take the top job in a large district, Vallas led the district until 2001 and was credited by many observers with helping improve the woeful status of the nation's third-largest school system. Vallas narrowly lost a race earlier this year to become the Democratic nominee for Illinois governor.

  • Duval County, Fla.: John Fryer, a former major general in the U.S. Air Force, became superintendent of the 126,000-student district that includes Jacksonville, Fla., in 1998.

  • Los Angeles: Roy Romer, former governor of Colorado and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, became superintendent of the nation's second-largest district in June 2000. The district's facilities chief also comes from outside education. Romer hired former U.S. Navy Capt. James McConnell, who ran a construction center at Port Hueneme, Calif., in 2001 to oversee the district's efforts to build 85 schools in five years.

  • Miami: Merrett Stierheim, who served twice as county manager in Miami-Dade County, became superintendent of Miami-Dade County Schools in October 2001.

  • New Orleans: Alphonse Davis, a former colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, became chief executive officer in the Orleans Parish school system in 1999.

  • New York City: Harold Levy, a lawyer who was director of global compliance for Citigroup, became chancellor of the nation's largest school system in 2000. He had served on the state's Board of Regents and chaired a commission that documented the poor state of the city's school facilities.

  • San Diego: Alan Bersin, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, became superintendent of San Diego City Schools, which has about 140,000 students, in 1998.

  • Seattle: Joseph Olchefske, a former investment banker, became acting superintendent of Seattle Schools in 1998, when another non-traditional superintendent, former U.S. Army General John Stanford, became ill with leukemia. Olchefske joined Stanford's administration in 1995 as chief financial officer. Olchefske was appointed superintendent after Stanford died in 1998.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.

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