Solving the wrong problem

With his six foot three inch athletic frame, wavy black hair and boisterous sense of humor,  Tom Galvin struck me as being the quintessential “big man on campus,” a “natural born leader,” if such a thing exists.

The first time I met him was in the stands at a high school basketball game. It was the finals of the sectionals and the two teams playing were from schools run by our colleagues. Tom was in his fifth year as principal of Rosemont High School, and I was the principal of a high school nearby. 

During the game, Tom kidded the other high school principals sitting with us in the stands, mostly because we were principals of high schools already eliminated from play. He made fun of himself as much as he did anyone else. 

Fast forward ten years later to a superintendents statewide conference, where I ran into Tom a second time. I was heading toward an early retirement from my superintendent duties precipitated by my first heart attack and heart surgery. Tom was now superintendent of Rosemont School District. 

One night I ended up sitting next to Tom at a dinner with several other superintendents. He still showed the same wit, charm and people skills I had seen earlier in his career, but he seemed more subdued, not as engaged as he was 10 years earlier at that basketball game.
During dinner he asked if we could meet for lunch the next day and talk about some issues in his school district. At the time I was one of the senior superintendents leading one of the largest school districts in the region so such a request was not unusual. 
Football, football, football

Tom had been an excellent athlete in high school. He played football and basketball and was captain of both teams in his senior year. He also played football at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he majored in history and social studies education. His career plan was to become a high school social studies teacher and, perhaps more importantly, a football coach.

When he entered the teaching profession in 1978, Tom’s skill set and aspirations lined up nicely with the needs of a number of suburban school districts. He joined Rosemont School District where he taught social studies for seven years before becoming assistant principal, all the while doing what he always dreamed — coaching high school football.

In his 10 year’s coaching, Tom’s football teams had winning records every year, made it to the sectional playoffs eight of the years and won the sectional B class title twice, unprecedented in Rosemont.

Tom loved coaching but in the end he took the promotions – first principal and later superintendent – because he wanted the higher pay. He also thought his close friend and trusted assistant coach, Kevin Talbot, was ready to step in and take over as head coach.

And so it begins

Unfortunately, 10 years into Kevin Talbot’s coaching career, the Rosemont High School football team appeared in the playoffs only once.

The football team’s record did not go unnoticed by one parent in the school district, Todd Morgan. Morgan, whose son played Pop Warner football, fully expected his son to play football in high school and harbored the hope that his son would receive a football scholarship. He ran for the school board — and won — with the idea of replacing Kevin with a winning coach.

At lunch, Tom told me he was torn between his loyalty to his former assistant coach, Kevin, and his disappointment in the team’s performance, and expressed concern over what might happen as a result of Todd Morgan’s election to the school board. Tom’s question for me was: “What would you do with Kevin and the football coaching position?”

I tried to steer Tom away from his question with some questions of my own about the academic success of the high school, Kevin Talbot’s teaching skills and the goals of the school board in his district, but Tom was persistent: “What would you do about Kevin?” he asked again.

Football is not important, I told him. (And that’s coming from someone who played in high school and college.) Kevin had his chance; time for another coach. I said. See if he’ll resign so you don’t end up with a public relations mess prompted by his supporters in the community. Then concentrate on what’s important — the students’ education.

The real problem

The bad news for Rosemont High School was that Tom Galvin was ever even considered for the position of superintendent. He was one of the good old boys (and girls as this type of leadership weakness is not gender specific) that populate too many of the school superintendent positions in the United States. His sole qualification was the ability to flatter school boards. 

He lacked the necessary ethics, attention to detail, ability to manage and maintain both a holistic perspective on the issues facing the district and a detailed perspective on leadership challenges critical to his effective leadership. 

Principal Fortunato and the mysterious dropout rate

While Tom was grappling with the question of how to win more football games, Rosemont’s new high school principal, Debbie Fortunato, was grappling with her own issues.

I met Debbie Fortunato during a doctoral dissertation by a University at Albany (SUNY) graduate student. I was on a panel and Debbie, a doctoral student herself, was in the audience. When she found out who I was she approached me during a break and asked me for some advice. Again, not an unusual request for me.

A week or so after the presentation, I met up with Debbie at a local Starbuck’s where she gave me an earful on her situation at Rosemont High School, the same school district where Tom Galvin was school superintendent.

When she was interviewed for the position, a few of the teachers on the interview committee and some of the school board members made it clear they thought Rosemont High School needed an academic boost.

Some of the red flags were: fewer students passed Regents exams and those who did scored lower than those in similar schools; fewer students Took AP exams; fewer Rosemont graduates attended competitive colleges; and SAT scores also were lower than expected.

The dropout rate was also suspicious. Either some students were missing in action or the dropout rate was worse than reported.

Tom Galvin agreed he thought academic improvement was important, but that poor public relations was the real problem. The district needed to polish its image, he told her.

Debbie was hired and the first thing she did was analyze the academic performance data. It turned out the mysterious dropout rate was the result of 15 to 20 students per year being transferred into a local GED program. The “transfers” artificially kept the drop out rate low, even though most of the “transferred” students never received a diploma. 

Meanwhile, according to the state education department, those transfers should have been counted as dropouts. Debbie asked Tom Galvin how she should handle it, but she received more of a warning than a response.

“The school board knows about those transfers,” Galvin said. “We certainly don’t need bad public relations about more dropouts. We need to pass our budget in May and if we don’t, you’ll take the heat.”

When Debbie raised concerns about the AP program with too few students taking the challenging AP tests and Regents and SAT scores that were too low Tom Galvin said: “I’ll support any changes you need to make to improve the high school academic results as long as you can do it within the existing budget. Just let me be the one who talks to the school board about it. Don’t contact any of the board members, and if one of them calls you or emails you or tries to meet with you just tell them to contact me immediately. Understood?”

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(Sections in italics are fictional stories based on composites of multiple actual experiences.)

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