Second Thought: Wednesday, October 6, 2004
ABCs, not CEOs

All together now ó Fort Worth needs an educator, not just an administrator.


The Fort Worth school district is looking for a new superintendent these days. They already have two on board ó interim super Joe Ross, called back from retirement, and the old super, Thomas Tocco, who sits in an office and collects his $314,000 a year salary through December. So the school board has hired a search firm to bring another one on board.

Choosing the right superintendent is one of the most critical decisions that Fort Worth faces right now. There are so many issues at play, and the ones dominating the discussion seem to be the financial improprieties that took place under Tocco. There were contractors stealing millions of dollars, questionable property bought for too much money, and even the problem of being unable to implement computers in schools because there are not enough electrical outlets.

In some ways a school district with 80,000 students and an annual budget of $557 million does resemble a big business, and some might think a CEO-type person would be the best choice for the superintendentís job. But auditors and trustees can clean up those problems. The millions lost in swindles, bad property buys, and wasted construction money arenít the only numbers at issue here. The dropout rates are high, test scores are well below the state average, and a magnet program that helped educate talented students has been dismantled. The zooming minority makeup of the student body and the climbing poverty rates need to be addressed in terms of education. In fact, the relatively simple notion of hiring someone who can clean up the educational system seems to be flying under the radar here, and it shouldnít be. Fort Worth has gone from a strong public school system to one thatís not doing a very good job of educating its students, and thatís about as serious a problem as a city can have.

Let me put it this way: A district that cannot figure out that you need a lot of electrical outlets to run computers probably has a hard time teaching kids to read and write and do math problems. And the problems in education start at the very top. We need a top-flight educational leader with ideas on how to get our school district back into the asset column for our city.

While everyone likes to look at test-score numbers, other numbers are more important. In Fort Worth, only 72 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have high school diplomas, ranking Cowtown 51st out of 60 cities in this country. In Seattle, for example, 93 percent of that age group are high school graduates. Or look at dropout rates ó 12.7 percent for the class of 2002 in Fort Worth schools, more than double the state average. About two-thirds of the students in the Fort Worth district are classified as economically disadvantaged, and one-fourth have limited English proficiency.

One of the major issues the new superintendent must deal with is that of race. The school district is now about 80 percent African-American and Hispanic. As the minority population has increased, the test scores have declined and the dropout rate has increased. The problem is not that minority kids arenít smart enough. The issue is whether the white leadership in Fort Worth has let the district decline because fewer and fewer of their own kids go there.

This school board, the new superintendent, and the business community must face the fact that companies donít want to expand in cities where one-fourth of the population hasnít even graduated from high school. The minority leadership must hold the feet of the school board to the fire in this matter. Whoever is chosen as the new superintendent must have new ideas on how to bring about racial equality in our school system.

There are many ways to make this work. The district needs to invest in better computer training. It needs to let its teachers teach their subjects, rather than spending months teaching the state-mandated tests. The magnet program must be re-tooled, making it fair for both minority and white students. Many more minority teachers must be found.

Thatís why the new superintendent canít be just a money guy, just a CEO type. This job is more than just taking care of money. Because even worse than the financial mess that happened while leaders werenít paying attention is the educational mess that is continuing to happen for the same reason. So, school trustees, city leaders ó pay attention. Do your homework. Meet this challenge. Find us an education leader.

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