Upheaval in Houston Ushers Out School Chief

AFTER four-and-a-half years at the helm of the fifth-largest school district in the United States, Joan Raymond will soon take over as interim superintendent of a tiny district in suburban Chicago with little more than 1,000 students. The experience of this public educator tells a tale of changing expectations for school governance. Although some urban superintendents are deserting highly charged jobs for the relative tranquillity of smaller, suburban districts, Dr. Raymond says she didn't want to leave her job as superintendent of Houston Independent School District.

``I just did not wish to spend the remainder of my contract in what appeared to be an irreconcilable difference of strategy,'' Raymond says in a quiet tone that belies her image as an iron-handed, autocratic leader.

This gracious, well-coifed woman could more easily pass for a society matron than the leader of a 194,000-student district with a $781 million budget. But behind Raymond's calm, soft-spoken manner is a woman just coming up for air after an extended political fight with the city's nine-member school board.

When five new members were elected to the board last year, a conflict over the pace of restructuring in the district began brewing. A domino-like chain of events led almost everyone involved to the same conclusion: Raymond could not stay on and fulfill the remaining two years of her contract.

``It became an impossible situation,'' says Paula Arnold, president of the board.

After a 6 to 3 vote expressing dissatisfaction with the superintendent in a public job evaluation, Raymond negotiated a contract buyout worth more than $425,000 and agreed to resign at the end of the school year. That resignation became effective June 10.

She is known as a shrewd negotiator and savvy politician, but some say Raymond miscalculated in resigning. ``I think she misplayed her hand,'' says Donald R. McAdams, one of the five new board members. Despite the six votes of no confidence, there was not an overwhelming push for the superintendent to be forced out, he says.

Sitting in her spacious office just weeks before leaving Houston, Raymond told the Monitor: ``You rethink it a lot of times - hundreds, thousands of times. But I think it was the right decision to make.... There comes a point in time when you have to decide what's best for the system.''

Raymond, who was superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., from 1979 to 1986, has devoted her life to education. ``I've been in public education for 34 years - all of that time in an urban setting. It's what I know; it's what I love. If my voice can continue to be heard speaking out on behalf of the profession, I'd like to do that.''

In line with that philosophy, Raymond applied for the top post in Boston, one of the most distressed urban school districts in the US. After Boston made Raymond second choice, the battle-weary administrator chose to accept a one-year contract with the River Forest, Ill., school district near her hometown of Chicago.

In 1986, when Raymond first came to Houston, she was charged with bringing order to a chaotic system. ``She was brought in for a specific purpose - to clean up an administrative mess,'' Ms. Arnold says. Most agree that she fulfilled that mandate. Even Raymond's staunchest foes acknowledge that she is a skillful administrator and an accomplished educator.

Teachers and principals are more concerned about the upheaval surrounding Raymond's departure than anything else. ``We get tired of watching the ping-pong game,'' says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, the largest of four teacher groups in the district. ``Frankly, sometimes we feel more like the ping-pong [ball].''

Many teachers say they don't understand what went on between the board and the superintendent. ``They [the board members] were so pro-Raymond and then there was this quick turnaround,'' says Timothy Salem, an English teacher at Stephen F. Austin High School. ``My main concern is who will replace her. At least with Dr. Raymond, we knew how she worked.''

For the most part, principals gave the superintendent more support. She did, after all, personally place the majority of them in their jobs. ``Dr. Raymond didn't smile and shake your hand,'' says Elizabeth Fox, principal of Will Rogers Elementary School, ``she came through.''

UNDER Raymond's leadership, the 236-school district did make substantial gains: Test scores are up; the dropout rate is down; the district has a new curriculum; many new programs are in place. In addition, Raymond is given credit for decentralizing the district bureaucracy and building strong support within the city's business community. She called on that support to help raise property taxes more than 30 percent during her tenure. ``That's not easy to do in Houston during an oil bust,'' Raymond is quic k to point out.

``If there had been a public referendum on this, I would have won,'' Raymond says, still confident about her support within the community. But she has had confrontations with minority groups in the city, particularly Hispanics who represent 43 percent of all students in the district. [See related story.]

While acknowledging her abilities, critics charge Raymond with having an inflexible top-down management style and controlling approach to leadership. ``If she was a marine general, I'd be happy to follow her into battle,'' Mr. McAdams says.

A MAMMOTH, modern administration building stands as testament to the district's capacity for housing a bureaucracy. But Raymond points to the decentralization plan launched immediately after her arrival in Houston as evidence of her ability to restructure and reform the system.

``This was a very highly centralized bureaucracy five years ago,'' she says. Immediately after arriving, the superintendent created 14 administrative areas to replace the six colossal district areas that existed. And within six months, she moved the district supervisors out of the central building to administer from their districts. ``The exercise of authority from the perspective of this administration has been to clean out this bureaucracy and put the decisionmaking out into the system,'' Raymond says .

While recognizing the superintendent's past contributions to the Houston system, some board members saw a need for change. ``There is a strategy for the first inning and there's a strategy for the second inning as time goes on,'' McAdams says. ``Adapting to the changing needs of the city was something that was not happening.''

Raymond's leadership style was not viewed as compatible with the new board's goals. ``She created the stability in the district that will allow us to do some progressive restructuring,'' Arnold says. ``We now need someone who is a different kind of leader. Someone who is able to build bridges into the community.''

The new board came in with a strong commitment to ``restructuring and reform,'' McAdams says. The priority was placed on promoting ``school-based management,'' a policy that allows principals to have a greater role in governing their own schools.

Although Raymond says she supported the move toward school-based management, some board members say she did not fully embrace their plan.

``In subtle but clear ways it became clear that Dr. Raymond did not support this initiative,'' McAdams says. Although she has many talents, he and other board members say, it seems difficult for her to relinquish authority to principals.

``The school system was to a large extent what she had created and she was proud of her achievement,'' McAdams says. ``Recommending to change that system was implying criticism of the way she had managed it for four years.''

Raymond insists that she was working toward the goals outlined by the board. But, she says, bottom-up change must be brought along slowly.

Part of the blame for the situation in Houston, Raymond says, is the ``genuine alarm'' everyone feels about the state of public education. Although she understands the frustration with the slow pace of change, she lives with the knowledge that ``it cannot be fixed immediately.''

``I have not criticized this board, and I will not do that,'' Raymond says. But later in the interview, the superintendent does offer a critique. ``If I have a single criticism of this board, this would be it: They acted too quickly. They've got to give themselves some learning time to pick up the history of the district.'' If they gave it more time and a closer look, she's convinced, they would become ``aware of the incredible amount of change which has begun.''

But some members of the board concluded that in good conscience they could not give the situation more time. Elected for four-year terms here in Houston, many board members feel an obligation to themselves and to the public to show progress during that time. ``It was pretty obvious to us that if we laid back and did nothing more she would tinker with the status quo and in a very long, slow, evolutionary process change things very little,'' McAdams says. ``In my mind, the stakes were too high to allow th ese four years to pass without getting on in a significant way with restructuring and reform.''

WHEN asked what she would have done differently in retrospect, Raymond says: ``I should have thought of the name `restructuring' five years ago and started using it. I just wasn't far-sighted enough to call it that. Restructuring is an umbrella - it's not just school-based management.''

As Joan Raymond leaves the hot seat in Houston, she takes with her a hard-earned knowledge of the complexity and difficulty of leading big-city schools.

Growing expectations and demands are putting more and more pressure on those at the top. It's been a tough five years, she says. ``To have every aspect of your life put under such a microscope constantly is not easy.'' In the end, it ``really gets down to affecting the quality of public servants.''

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