When President-elect George W. Bush nominated Rod Paige for secretary of education, the media raves on the local level spewed like Spindletop in its prime. The Houston Independent School District suddenly became the best urban district in the nation and the 67-year-old superintendent Paige the premier leader in public education.
Unmentioned was the fact that two of the reasons cited for such unstinting praise -- the district's rising TAAS test scores and privatizing everything from payroll processing to school food services -- are hardly accepted unanimously as successes.
Teaching to pass the TAAS is under attack from educators and parents as a diversion from real learning. And the privatization effort has generated as much criticism as praise from district employees and vendors.
Then there's the Paige team's cultist embrace of Model-Netics, a system of management phrases and symbols peddled by a corporate executive who advised HISD on reorganization.
Of course, there's plenty of good news to be had on the district in the form of a blizzard of press releases churned out by the staff of $110,000-a-year media-consultant-without-a-college-degree Terry Abbott, former press aide to a Republican governor of Alabama who was convicted of fraud. Abbott was a find of public education activist Rob Mosbacher, that former mayoral candidate and close adviser of Paige whose kids attend St. John's.
The storm over how former football coach Paige was elevated to the superintendency in 1994 has long since passed beyond the local media's memory. But it is helpful to remember that he was an unpaid HISDboard member who joined a coalition of white trustees. At the time, Paige, whose college dissertation was on the response time of football linemen, was a dean of education at troubled Texas Southern University and the founder of a new business, the Houston Education Collegium. By accident or design, he then bootstrapped himself, with a little help from his colleagues, into what became a $260,000-a-year job as superintendent.
The chutzpah of the maneuver motivated the Texas legislature to pass a law banning trustees from jumping straight from the board bedroom to the executive penthouse without a decent yearlong cooling-off period. (A district source claims HISD lobbyists will try to get that troublesome stricture removed during the upcoming session of the lege.)
In fact, Paige's top deputy, Susan Sclafani, ran the day-to-day operations of HISD for the last decade, and Abbott handled the spin. So what exactly did Paige accomplish?
According to the 1998 Brookings Institute report "Lessons from Houston," authored by HISD trustee Don McAdams, Paige provided an invaluable minority front for the campaign by the Houston business community to reform and decentralize the district. Paige's predecessor as superintendent, Frank Petruzielo, proved insufficiently enthusiastic for plans laid by a committee headed by Harold Hook, CEO of insurance giant American General, and Al Haines, then-head of the Greater Houston Partnership. Haines is a past City of Houston chief administrative officer who later joined American General, then returned to the city under Mayor Lee Brown.
McAdams believes that most public education problems arise "because urban school districts are under direct democratic control." He bragged in his report that he and the other white trustees boosted Paige into the top HISD position.
"The superintendency was offered to Paige in a closed session it created a firestorm," recalled McAdams. "Those of us who conceived the idea had kept our opinions to ourselves. The public was stunned. Houston's Hispanic activists were outraged."
Paige, a longtime Republican activist, then had to battle the minority board members with the help of his westside allies.
"The four white trustees continued to generate ideas for reform and were usually enthusiastic for Paige's recommendations," wrote McAdams. "The five minority trustees, with increasing frequency, challenged Paige at the board table and rejected key recommendations."
McAdams noted in his conclusion that in Houston, race matters. And then he touched on Paige's value as a front man for the business community's effort.
"It is true that most of the reform leaders on the HISD board were white," noted McAdams. "But without Rod Paige, the board's voice would have been muted .Only Paige could obtain support from a minority board -- and from minority leaders throughout the city . One could not play the race card against Paige."
Soon-to-be-president Bush should take note. When it comes time to ram through Congress those controversial school voucher programs and anything else that inflames minority educators, you've got your race-card-proof secretary all ready to carry the ball.
Privatization has not been the unqualified success Abbott and his squadron of flacks are fond of portraying. A five-year contract with Aramark for district food services has yielded a barrage of complaints about the quality of both the food and the service in campus cafeterias. Statistics indicate that rather than saving money, HISD is paying more under the contract, while the underage consumers are turning up their noses at the chow and opting for junk food.
Orell Fitzsimmons, the leader of the cafeteria workers' union and parent of a fifth-grader at HISD's Travis Elementary, summarizes it this way: "The quality of the food is down, the parents are unhappy, and the kids are eating less."
A privatization of district payroll services to PeopleSoft likewise drew brickbats from employees when teacher stipends and regular paychecks were delayed. When HISD contracted for accounting services with a German firm, SAP, vendors complained that payment cycles doubled and tripled.
If Bush is up for a new learning experience, his education nominee has just what the corporate doctor ordered. Paige is a strong advocate of Model-Netics, the management program pushed by retired American General CEO Hook and avidly embraced by the district at Paige's instructions in 1997.
Initially purchased from Hook's Main Events Management (MEM) for $161,000, Model-Netics is a system of 151 models made up of diagrams, catchphrases and hieroglyphiclike symbols. During the last three years, district administrators all the way down to the principals' level have gone through the 20 one-hour sessions plus 60 to 80 hours of added study. The idea is that everybody learns the same management concepts and communicates them via terms unintelligible to the uninitiated.
For instance, "The Cruel Sea" is shorthand for layoffs. "The Northbound Train" means get with the program or else. And if they forget just exactly what models like "The Tomato Plant Problem" really mean, program trainees are issued their own little Model-Netics booklets to jog memories in a pinch.
Hook also got Paige to introduce the Desk Manual Program (DMP), in which HISD employees were supposed to inventory the tasks of their jobs and create a manual that is updated during daily half-hour exercises.
"I'd love to see the man-hours that maintaining this stupid desk manual takes," teachers union leader Gayle Fallon scoffed last year. "If we totaled them, we could probably fund an entire alternative school out of it."
Paige even authorized the creation of MEM Systems Administration to oversee the district's Model-Netics and the desk manual operations. It required an entire floor of a building on Weslayan with ten employees and salary budgets of $477,128 annually.
Asked if Paige plans to install those and other Hook brainstorms at the Department of Education offices in D.C., Abbott politely directed our questions to a Bush transition team publicist.
When he's not dabbling in those esoteric management concepts, Paige tries to project a regular-guy persona, but it can be deceptive. He often drives a downscale red Honda and parks it in the marked superintendent's parking slot for public display. However, district staffers say Paige's first love is a spiffy black Mercedes, which he often parks in the spaces reserved for board members or administrators, to disguise the identity of the driver.
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"I cannot believe he keeps up the little red car sham," laughs one employee who offices in the district's Taj Mahal headquarters on Richmond. "Everybody knows about the Mercedes."
With superflack Abbott likely to jump on the Northbound Train to D.C. with his boss, others at HISD are dreaming of tickets on the Cherry Blossom Special. Abbott has been collecting résumés of local hopefuls, though he won't say whether there's an undersecretary of education seat waiting in his own future.
"Ah, no, I don't know," replies Paige's golden mouthpiece. He adds, "I'm just trying to get inaugural tickets."
What do you want to bet he gets 'em?