Sunday, April 18, 2004

School leaders must save this marriage


No one is talking divorce, but signs abound that the relationship between Cincinnati Schools Superintendent Alton Frailey and some members of the Board of Education is rocky.

At the same time, Frailey is nearing estrangement from the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, which says he broke faith by reneging on a tentative contract agreement.

Let's face it: The urban superintendency is a high-risk marriage partner to begin with. On average, city superintendents have a lifespan of 2.75 years. They fall victim to the enormous challenges facing poor schools and the raw-knuckles politics that surround their office. Frailey, named superintendent in November 2002, has been back from the honeymoon for a while.

Still the partnership is too young, Frailey is too full of promise and the city too full of hope for his success to see the situation deteriorate. These sorts of fallings-out happen. Addressed in time, they can be a dip in the road, not a dead end.

In the end a successful superintendency does come down to relationships. And successful relationships come down to all partners working toward a common goal.

Frailey has angered some board members and union leaders by his aversion to their questions, and by decisions that force his board and staff to wonder at his effectiveness. A prime example: Frailey expressed disappointment that a pay-for-performance clause wasn't in the proposed teachers' contract, yet his own negotiating team failed to put it on the table.

Still, there is a case to be made that the school board wanted a take-charge leader and that's just what they got in Frailey. He would not be the first superintendent to face opposition when he questioned where board members' powers start and stop. And some board members are very supportive of him.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, says all superintendents and school boards squabble. "The way back is being reminded that they are on the same page for a broader vision for the school district. Otherwise, there's no unifying theme, and they're left to define their relationship by their differences."

When problems arise, good leaders set aside time to talk frankly and collaboratively, with a facilitator present if needed. We say - no classroom humor intended - that it's time for a timeout.

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