An unholy alliance

If you think that’s the last time that the unholy alliance between Todd Morgan and Jessie Thomas will create leadership problems for the Rosemont School District, think again. Once two or more uninformed egomaniacs realize they can get what they want by not following the rules of good school board member behavior and by making side deals (You give me this; I’ll give you that.), they are subject to the whims of whomever misinformed them last.

If a parent doesn’t like the basketball coach because his son sits on the bench too much he can call Todd Morgan and see what kind of misery he can inflict on that coach via a politically savvy superintendent who will do anything to save her/his job. And the parent of a disabled child who wants a one-on-one aide for her son can call Jessie Thomas to be  her advocate for that aide.

Before long very local and very messy politics are controlling the school district. School board members succumb to pressures from individuals with an agenda and over time it destroys the leadership culture of their school districts.

Soon individual employees or their unions will be pursuing the school board member “team” route to achieve their goals, and the superintendents and principals will move through the district like a series of revolving doors.

Meanwhile, the district will see the possibilities for real academic growth for students and teachers in the district wither and die. Before long the weakest school districts with this leadership cycle firmly entrenched produce either (1) consistently poor academic performance when compared with similar districts in terms of student demographics, size and financial resources, (2) poor financial health, or (3) both.

Many superintendents who survive in these school districts are complicit in this failure of leadership and manage to remain in their positions by hiding poor academic performance and financial data that might end the entire charade.

From bad to worse

Tom Galvin’s decision to hide the real dropout data at Rosemont and to continue to hide it for years was a clear ethical message to all the staff members who knew about this deception and who participated in the cover up over the years. The message was: “We can make ourselves look better as a school district than we really are and no one will know.”

And it came with a ready justification: other school districts are hiding their bad data too. Is this really any different from erasing student answers on test bubble sheets in Atlanta, GA, where school administrators went to prison for their errors?

Do you think it was easy for Debbie Fortunato, the Rosemont high school principal, to buck this longstanding trend when her boss as much as told her to continue the ruse by telling her the school board already knew about the dropouts who were mislabeled as transfers?

Of course not, but I’m certain one of the reasons her staff supported her is because they knew she was a real education leader. She even found a way to come clean with the data in public and avoid the public relations mess the superintendent feared. The dropouts increased slightly on paper but went down dramatically in actuality and no one made note of it. But her real successes didn’t save her when the political house of cards built around Tom Galvin collapsed.

Whenever a school district hires an internal candidate for a promotion there is pressure to hide the data. Tom Galvin didn’t want to let the school board and the public know about those false dropout numbers because he would be tied to the poor performance (It’s happened during his tenure as assistant principal and principal at the high school,) and to the cover-up of poor performance.

Why do you think Tom Galvin’s highly developed political skills failed him in the end, when it had saved him from losing his job all these years and even landed him three promotions in the school district?

Multiple reasons: his obsession with high school football wins and losses; his misguided loyalty to his friend, Kevin Talbot; and his refusal to deal with Jessie Thomas when an early and effective communication about the weak honors and AP performance data would have permanently solved the problem?

If Superintendent Galvin had replaced Coach Talbot (which would have been perfectly reasonable given the dwindling number of football participants and the team’s dismal record), the problem would never have escalated. But doing this would have meant abandoning his friend and getting entirely out of the coaching role, a role he maintained behind the scenes

If Superintendent Galvin had admitted to Jessie Thomas and Debbie Fortunato at the beginning that he had made a mistake a long time ago with Lois Schafer and the structure of the honors math program, and that he had hidden that error for 18 years, the problem would have ended.

A misguided quest for winning football team and an ego that refused to admit an 18-year-old error in judgement about an academic program became blind spots. Many times weak superintendents (and sometimes even strong ones) are brought down by their blind spots.

The worst news for Rosemont is that it lost a great high school principal who will have a hard time landing another educational leadership job opportunity. The sting of tenure denial or resignation to avoid a formal public vote for tenure denial can be a career ender for many principals.

Anyone who has any say in hiring principals will know the Rosemont story, and there will be no doubt that Debbie Fortunato was guiltless in the “Monday night massacre.” This is doubly bad because the teachers and department chairs who had helped to create the positive changes initiated at Rosemont High School while Debbie Fortunato was there will be reluctant to make that level of change again.

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