To the long-suffering employees slaving away in the guts of the HISD's Taj Mahal administration building, President George W. Bush is indeed an education savior.
He freed them from the seven-year reign of Superintendent Rod Paige by boosting him to education secretary. With that appointment, Bush also indirectly provided tickets to Washington for two members of Paige's command staff: Terry Abbott, the $120,000 diploma-less Paige political flack, and Susan Sclafani, the superintendent's top workaholic deputy.
Sclafani unsuccessfully sought the acting superintendency, only to be rebuffed by the board's choice of ambitionless near-future retiree Kaye Stripling. So Susan opted for a ticket on Paige's Cherry Blossom special and the post of "counselor to the secretary." She officially moves out this week to join Abbott, now the press spokesman for Paige in D.C. Sharon Hammond, Paige's HISD secretary, also joins the team in D.C.
With Paige's brain, mouth and penmanship in good hands, the ex-superintendent -- and former TSU dean and football coach -- should be admirably prepared for a successful run as a Washington bureaucrat.
In the Paige team's wake, Stripling announced the new district command structure at a school board retreat several weeks ago. The hierarchy features an ex-trustee, a longtime financial officer and an academic manager who has been responsible for the implementation of the controversial Model-Netics program in the district.
Replacing Sclafani as HISD chief academic officer is Robert Stockwell. He retains his position over the Main Events Management Services that includes the wacky desk manual program sold to Paige by his management guru, former American General CEO Harold Hook. Those services also include Model-Netics, the controversial management language system using oddball catchphrases about trains and seas. It was embraced by Paige and Sclafani several years back and forced down the throats of gagging administrators and principals.
Former trustee and board president Cathy Mincberg is chief business officer in the new troika, while veteran financial officer Leonard Sturm hangs in there as chief financial officer.
"Leonard's the only one of the three that exhibits remotely human characteristics," snipes one Taj Mahalic, "and he's the bean counter!"
The new lineup gets better reviews from Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. She praises Stockwell as someone "who really knows curriculum" and figures his involvement with Model-Netics was more in the role of playing a good soldier and doing what Paige and Sclafani wanted.
As for Mincberg, Fallon opines that "Cathy has a spine of steel, and that scares some administrators." Although the union's relations with Sclafani were abysmal, Fallon credits Mincberg as "a straight shooter" who honors her commitments.
Chief-of-staff duties now go to Rosalind Young, who will serve as gatekeeper to Stripling, as well as supervising departments including media and information services. Young still has some long-term bureaucratic enemies for the way she hounded former television reporter Sandy Rivera out of the district PR office years ago. Abbott's old press spokesman job is up for grabs.
So why did the board bypass Sclafani for the interim superintendency, effectively forcing her departure? Board president Jeff Shadwick suggests that congeniality, or the lack thereof, might have had something to do with it. One of the criteria for the interim is "who would be most likely to get along with most people in the organization?" says Shadwick. "In other words, whose ascendancy would cause the fewest people to leave."
In addition, had Sclafani gotten the title, many would have seen it as a way to promote her to the top job without a search process -- just as Paige himself was elevated from the board to the top job in 1994.
"She may still have a shot at the full-time superintendency," says Shadwick. "Had she been the interim, we would have heard cries that the deal is cut, that nobody else really has a shot."
The board's final answer turned out to be Stripling, a nonthreatening, well-liked veteran. She took the fall for supervisors in a controversy over alternative teacher certification in the early '90s and then was sent in to clean up the mess as principal at the troubled Rice Middle School. Stripling clearly paid her dues, earning a final glory lap as the interim.
"In getting Kaye Stripling," says Shadwick, "we're trying to really beat the drum on the theme that this is an open process, it's going to be a fair competition, nobody has the inside track. And we accomplished that in picking her."
And the only person the selection chased out of HISD was Sclafani. "I hear people are doing cartwheels in the halls" of the Taj Mahal, chuckles Fallon about Susan's exit.
As the process unfolds, Hispanics demand that one of their own inherit the superintendency. Shadwick says the board will try some new tactics to find a nontraditional type of superintendent. One of the strategies is to forgo a conventional executive headhunting firm. Instead, they'll use a racially diverse group of consultants for the scouting job. While one source says the formula is one white, one black and one brown consultant, Shadwick denies it's that racially cut-and-dried.
"We want an undetermined number of consultants, probably two or three, with the idea being we want to cast nets in as many different directions as possible." He says at least one consultant likely will be Hispanic, and all should have experience with job searches.
That already has local business and political types salivating for contracts. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has been pushing at least one candidate. However it all sorts out, Fallon predicts that finding a consensus candidate won't be easy.
"They don't want to mess this one up," she notes, "and they know they're being watched very closely and very critically." Complicating the search is the fact that there aren't many high-profile educators in the market for a position.
Meanwhile, Fallon herself has received an unexpected national boost as a result of the Paige entourage's takeover of the Education Department. Suddenly, education union chiefs are begging for information and entrées to the unknown circle of Texans surrounding the new secretary.
"I've been to Washington twice since January," notes Fallon. "As for the national union, I'm a lot of their access."
For years Fallon has worked -- and gotten along well -- with Paige and Abbott, as well as Beth Ann Bryant. She's a former gubernatorial staffer to Bush on education issues and now one of the secretary's advisers.
So will Fallon jump on the Northbound Train and follow her contacts to D.C.?
"I went to college in D.C., and a trip up there is no thrill," replies the union president. "I know the traffic, and I know the rent, and I've already got a job, and I like what I'm doing."
For those of you with itchy feet, Abbott's old political spin doctor spot, as well as the superintendency itself, is up for grabs. And the money and benefits aren't half bad.
Reno's Farewell: Don't Go Postal!
A Houston federal exec is still giggling over January's good-bye missive sent by outgoing attorney general Janet Reno and Personnel Management Office lame duck Janice R. Lachance on their last day in office. After a couple of paragraphs of standard "thank you for your generous service" platitudes, the letter shifted into a more serious mode.
"During your federal executive service, we encourage you to remember that the ability to manage conflict is an integral part of your responsibilities as a manager," Reno and Lachance advised. "Because conflicts can interfere with the accomplishments of an agency's mission, the well-prepared federal executive is trained to deal with conflict effectively and efficiently."
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One recipient found the good-bye note's emphasis to be odd, a likely dig at the incoming Bush team headed by conservative former senator John Ashcroft.
"If she didn't mean the Republicans, why all the talk about conflict?" wondered the recipient.
The letter advised employees to seek alternative dispute resolution tips at www.financenet.gov/iadrg. With the final words of "best wishes for continued success in the future," Reno vanished into the South Florida ether.
Anyone reading between the lines might have gotten a very different message: Under the new order you can kiss your little federal ass good-bye.