Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Rogue Superintendent, Part Three

Is Council Member Valerie Ervin right when she says that MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast is a rogue? Here’s what our informant network had to say.

Spy #1:

No, I do not agree. He is simply trying to look out for the school system, and keep it most viable and effective. They [the County Council] should not be surprised by this behavior. They have seen it over the last 10 years.
Spy #2:

It was a little “rogue” to send that letter to Grasmick without talking to the council - essentially drawing attention to the [maintenance of effort] issue. But, on the whole, I think most people have a problem with him because he is political and people feel that a school superintendent shouldn’t be so political. My opinion is his political nature has been a benefit to the school system - he knows how to get things done.
Spy #3:

If by “rogue” Valerie Ervin means operating outside normal or desirable controls, of course he is. He’s been a rogue since he arrived. Now it just looks like he is setting himself up for another contract when his current one expires. He appears to be standing up for “the kids,” but he’s really posturing before the Board and the unions, positioning himself as the only viable successor to himself. Don’t be surprised to see him use the MOE money he gets in the next budget to fund COLA and step increases for school system employees. With Jerry Weast, it is – and always has been – first and foremost about Jerry Weast. And that’s why he meets another definition of “rogue:” an unprincipled, deceitful, and unreliable person.
Spy #4:

Weast is very adept at getting his way with the school board, politicians and others, and he has produced results. The man has a lot of power. I do find his “Gosh, gee whiz we’re going to work on that” act a little hard to stomach. He kind of reminds me of a combination of Opie Taylor and Rahm Emanuel - smiling country boy with brass knuckles hidden behind his back. Does that make him rogue? I don’t know, but I am very fond of Valerie Ervin and consider her opinion as something to be taken seriously.
Spy #5:

At the federal level, it’s rarely helpful to have Generals or Cabinet Secretaries disagreeing in public with the President. In the same vein, the County is best served when it speaks with one voice on contentious dealings with the State. Where agency heads or other County employees decide to pursue their own independent agendas with the State or seek to undercut our County’s duly elected representatives in their dealings with the State, describing such an individual as a “rogue” employee is entirely appropriate.
Spy #6:

I do not think Dr. Weast is a Rogue Superintendent. In fact, I credit him with maintaining one of the best school systems in the country. Obviously, he was provided the tools to succeed with increased education dollars over the years; and the teachers, support staff, and others are part of our success, too. However, I still believe he deserves a good amount of credit. During his tenure, the school system has become even larger and more diverse; there are more students needing English as a second language; and there are more lower-income families in the system and those with greater needs. Yet, we have seen continued progress in closing the achievement gap, more minority students taking AP exams, and our schools continue to maintain high marks when compared to other school systems throughout the country.

Maryland has been rated nationally as having the number one school system in the country; Montgomery County schools can take a big part of the credit for that recognition. Being #1 does not happen by accident. Dr. Weast has done a great job considering the challenges.
Spy #7:

Rogue is an understatement. He’s irresponsible at best, a tyrant, a bully, abusive and worse. I’ve heard from board members who’ve been threatened by him in ways that I, and probably a court, would consider blackmail in order to get their acquiescence on a vote. Add into that his willingness to interfere in politics. School wise, he’s driven teachers from the schools, he wastes money on so-called “research indicates” programs that change almost as fast as seasons. His training for teachers are the ed equivalent of drive-by shootings. He over-looked or was involved with the Porter scandal, well covered up, where we buy this palm-based assessment program from his failing company. Carrasco gets caught using school facilities for his private company, during school hours, and Weast promotes him up into the administrative hierarchy rather than firing him.
Spy #8:

Of course he’s rogue, that's why he’s been so effective in the past. But I think he’s done more for the school system than any other single person in county history. That happened because he came in with new ideas and the energy to get them done. Now, he’s a little tired from all the political fights and he’s settled in ideologically in such a way that he is now as much a barrier to school reform as a driver of it. He has also become more reliant on bureaucrats who could care less about kids in poverty or making the schools better. So the question for Weast is this: go out on a high note as one of the most widely respected and innovative superintendents in the country, or fade slowly into obscurity, increasingly undercutting a reputation for brilliant reform by opposing new reforms. And the question for Montgomery County is this: do we want to keep putting our schools on the cutting edge, or do we want to rest on our laurels?
Spy #9:

I think people need to decide if they want a really nice guy, whom everyone loves, and gets rolled over by the County Council and County Executive, and have a mediocre school system, or do they want someone who holds his own, may not always be the most popular, holds out for the school system, and has one of the top school systems in the country? I don’t think there are too many people out there that could do it both ways.

Jerry has done more for the unions than any previous superintendent, both in terms of wages and benefits. There has been more involvement by the community, PTA’s, unions in the budget, policy making, major decisions, than with any other superintendent ever. There has been more openness with this superintendent than ever before. I don’t believe there is another school system in the country that has made the strides we have in minority achievement, even with the transformation of our school system from majority white to majority minority. Dr. Weast is respected nationwide for his education initiatives, and is constantly asked for advice by the USDE.

Does Dr. Weast ruffle some feathers and have people dislike him? Absolutely! I can’t imagine doing his job well without getting some people upset.
The opinions of our informants reflect the split in the county’s political community over Weast’s style and his value to the schools. We believe that Weast has lost political capital for two reasons.

1. A solid majority of the County Council agrees with Council Member Valerie Ervin’s statement to the Gazette that Weast is indeed a rogue. They are tired of a non-elected official holding so much power, running a separate organization with its own PR operation and making them look bad in the press. Weast makes no effort to massage politicians’ egos or to recognize both the rest of the county government’s budgetary needs as well as the office holders’ political needs. The contempt for Weast in Rockville has approached such a boiling point that he may be a net debit for the school system in terms of appealing to the County Council.

2. Weast’s three sources of leverage are diminishing. First, his in-house media outreach efforts are likely to be contradicted in public by elected office holders much more so than in the past. That will muddy the press coverage of MCPS and its needs.

Second, Weast’s allies on the Washington Post Editorial Board are both more restive and less powerful. A recent Post editorial warned Weast to not bargain any wage increases with the school unions, meaning that the newspaper’s traditional affection for Weast may be overtaken by its fiscal conservatism and anti-union outlook. Furthermore, the Post’s editorial credibility was severely damaged by the Boy King scandal. The Post’s editorial page (including its national and international columns) has just 185 Google subscribers, a lower total than MPW (262) or Just Up the Pike (239). In the online world, the Post’s editorials do not have as much reach as is commonly believed.

Third, Weast’s most powerful collaborator – MCEA – will be working on the margins in the next county election. No District Council Members have declared opponents at this point. On the At-Large side, George Leventhal is a strong bet for re-election with or without the Apple Ballot and Nancy Floreen has won without MCEA’s endorsement before. All of this means that the majority of the County Council Members will be returning with or without MCEA’s help, which reduces the union’s leverage. Furthermore, the horrendous budget situation will give the council an excuse to kill any new initiative if they so choose, even one supported by Weast and the unions.

Weast is a compelling figure and his relationship with the County Council makes for great political theater. But there is a far more important issue at stake: the future of the school system. We will conclude by examining that issue in Part Four.