Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Rogue Superintendent, Part Two

One reason why Montgomery County is struggling so much over its maintenance of effort (MOE) issue is the rocky relationship between the County Council and its “Rogue Superintendent,” Jerry Weast. Why does Weast attract so much resentment from Rockville?

History will look back on Jerry Weast as a towering figure in Montgomery County. He is brilliant, nationally respected, full of energy and devoid of fear. He can also be a head-cracking administrator who is dismissive of opponents. What he builds through his creativity and hard work is sometimes tarnished by his self-aggrandizing nature. He has long had a reputation for riding rough-shod over his board, occasionally talking down to them “as your leader.” Your author once participated in a joint meeting with Weast, a Council Member and several other officials and actually witnessed Weast holding forth on the political prospects of that Council Member as if that person was not in the room! But Weast’s ego, as hard as it may be to take, has also helped him to score victories in situations when a lesser superintendent would have backed down.

Some of Weast’s most important wins have been budgetary. Total MCPS enrollment has not risen much during his term, from 134,180 in FY 2001 (his first budget) to a projected 137,727 in FY 2010. But the cost per pupil has soared from $8,166 to $14,294 over the same period. Some of that cost has stemmed from the increase in students receiving free or reduced price meals from 22% of enrollees in FY 2001 to 27% today. Another cost generator has been the increase in English-for speakers-of-other-language (ESOL) students from 7% of enrollees in FY 2001 to 12% today. Weast has employed a combination of political savvy, ruthlessness and media outreach to make sure those needs are met. Weast has also focused on reducing the test score and graduation gap between different demographic groups and has met with some success. One source with experience in the school system comments, “He may be an [expletive deleted], but he gets things done.”

Weast is a relentless data-driven manager. Everywhere he goes, he carries reams of charts and statistics demonstrating both his challenges and his triumphs. And if he can’t carry enough data himself, he will bring along subordinates with even more. He uses this information to enforce an Empire of Numbers inside his domain. He wants results, results, RESULTS and he reacts poorly to excuses. This constant focus on statistics is both a mark of Weast’s competency and a weakness. Nervous parents value compassion, sensitivity and a willingness to listen. Politicians value deference and diplomacy. Such qualities are seldom shown by Montgomery’s hard-charging superintendent, a man who will never understand why others do not value data as much as he does.

Weast’s influence reaches far outside MCPS. He has cleverly cultivated the county’s school unions, involving them in formulating his budgets and implementing many policies. He has also rewarded good performance with generous contracts. Weast’s collaborative style on labor-management relations, including his use of peer reviews for teachers, contrasts starkly with heavy-handed D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee and the vast majority of private sector firms.

Weast and the unions have a common interest in maximizing the school budget and they make for a formidable tag team. County Executive Ike Leggett learned that in 2007, when he recommended a slightly lower increase than Weast requested, only to see a giant rally of school advocates on the council building steps. Weast also has an independent line to the Washington Post and benefits from fawning coverage and glowing editorials. Weast even influences the Post’s election endorsements, whether directly or indirectly. In 2006, the Post declined to endorse then-appointed School Board Member Nancy Navarro on the grounds that “we are disturbed by what we see as her tepid support of Mr. Weast, whose contract comes up for renewal next year.” The triple threat of Weast’s in-house media operation, the strength of the unions and the support of the Post has proven to be too much for most politicians to handle.

The superintendent’s power is not limitless. Community pressure caused Weast to delay his plan to close the county’s special education centers and he was defeated outright in his attempt to close Seven Locks Elementary School in Bethesda. Weast caused an uproar when he urged union leaders to endorse Nancy Navarro in the 2008 County Council special election, a debacle that contributed to her loss. The Board of Education just voted down his attempt to close a small elementary school in the rural western part of the county. And Weast’s tenure has been marred by multiple scandals involving his subordinates. Those problems along with the dispute over maintenance of effort and recent test score issues have emboldened the growing ranks of his enemies.

So is Weast a rogue? We’ll ask our informants in Part Three.