Why the Superintendent Failed
Ohanian Comment:Three articles. Picture this as a movie opening--superintendent has a plan. It's all in the boxes. Remember the Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny? He didn't have boxes; for Queeg it was ball- bearings.
The reporter gives us a great, sobering line: If you think like a colonel, you'll start a war.
In a second article (below) a reporter compares the situation to "Survivor."
Is anybody checking on how the kids are doing? And the teachers?
Why the Superintendent Failed
by Walter Stern
John O'Sullivan had a plan.
Early on, the former superintendent of Chatham County's public schools had mapped out his strategy for improving student performance in a complicated multi-cell grid.
To explain this compartmentalized approach to staff and school board members, the former military colonel used three concentric boxes.
A list pasted to the lid of the largest box - just big enough to hold a Christmas ornament - reveals 10 goals for the entire system.
A smaller box, just large enough to hold a wallet, sits inside the first. Its lid bears a list of 12 standards for individual schools.
Open this box and you'll find an even smaller one, just big enough to hold a man's wrist watch. Its lid speaks of specific classroom standards.
Look inside that last box and you finally get to O'Sullivan's bottom line: "a dramatic increase in the quality of performance by all students at all levels in the system."
For a while, those boxes seemed to be stair steps to success.
Scores on some standardized tests rose. The district kept pace with many of his ambitious benchmarks. The number of failing schools declined.
But, ultimately, O'Sullivan's inability to think outside those boxes led to his ouster.
He rejected plans to bring a trailblazing charter school to Savannah with the help of state money.
He angered business and nonprofit leaders by dismissing some of their ideas, not following through on others and accusing some of them of having a "plantation mentality."
He got into needless fights, often invoking the military language of "us vs. them."
And most disastrously, he alienated the one group whose support he really needed - the school board.
In the end, board member David Lerch said, O'Sullivan didn't realize he had to be both administrator and politician.
O'Sullivan "didn't have the sense, the instinct that you have to develop" in order to survive, Lerch said.
It's an instinct that's more political than militaristic, one that favors compromise over force.
If you think like a colonel, you'll start a war.
Here's how it is supposed to work: The elected school board sets goals and policy; the superintendent develops plans, strategies and procedures to meet those goals and implement those policies.
But from the beginning, O'Sullivan's relationship with the nine-member board was tenuous. The board, long with a reputation for micromanaging and voting along racial lines, had split on hiring him. Four members - Janie Evans Fowles, Jessie Collier DeLoach, Otis Johnson and Lerch - initially voted against him. Newly elected board President Hugh Golson, however, was squarely in his camp.
O'Sullivan eventually won over all of his original opponents but Lerch by promising to focus on the racial inequities in the school system. He started in July 2001.
Soon, other pressing issues took precedence, and, by the end of his first year in office, O'Sullivan had established a reputation as a battlefield commander and a maverick.
He referred to the system's court fight with the county commission over tax collection fees as a war. He spoke of the "series of battles" that would lead ultimately to victory.
He vigorously defended his false resume statement that he received a degree equivalent to a doctorate from the National War College before finally ceding ground.
O'Sullivan also complained the board had traditionally been "very deeply involved in the day-to-day operations." He needed, he insisted, to change that, to take command and make decisions as he saw fit. His critics on the board called that arrogance and now say he would ignore their questions and made decisions without their input.
Interim superintendent George Bowen, another Air Force colonel who worked with O'Sullivan in Rochester, N.Y., before coming to Savannah, offered a slightly different reading.
"There are people that believe that he's arrogant," Bowen said. "There's people that believe that he's stubborn and hard-headed. I suggest to you that his passion for education probably accounts for that. I have worked with him for six years now and I've always been able to go down and sit down with him and discuss any issues, and I've had him say no to me, but I've had him also explain the reason he gave me the no."
O'Sullivan's skirmishes were most pronounced during the budget process in the spring of 2003.
Lerch, along with Lori Brady and Susu Cox, two board members who also have strong personalities, presented their own budget options to counter the one O'Sullivan offered.
Lerch's and Brady's plans called for no more than a 0.5 mill increase to the property tax. Cox's scenario did not include a tax increase.
O'Sullivan wanted a 2 mill increase.
Several board members thought their constituents wouldn't support that.
Rather than seek a middle ground, O'Sullivan kept pushing. He lost the battle and "after that, communication (suffered)," Lerch said.
Brady, Cox and DeWayne Hamilton were now lined up as O'Sullivan's foes.
But even with those three aligned against him, O'Sullivan managed to secure a 32-month contract renewal in November 2003. The board voted 8-1 to keep him on.
Lerch, the lone dissenter, cited low test scores, a racial achievement gap and the superintendent and board's "failure to come to a proper understanding of the governance of the school district" as the reasons behind his opposition.
The letter bomb
Then things got worse.
During the first six months of 2004, the board's trust in O'Sullivan unraveled at an even greater speed.
Bloomingdale parent Roger Allen lodged a complaint with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in response to Brady's and Cox's budget plans and what he called the pair's constant demands on administrative staff. Allen also alleged that board member Hamilton had violated SACS standards by acting as an obstructionist.
SACS put the district on notice, warning that future governance violations by board members could lead to probation.
In July, the ground shifted again.
Johnson High School Principal Gary Lackey wrote a letter to SACS leveling new complaints against board member Hamilton. Most had to do with Hamilton's interference in the school's selection of a graduation speaker and its implementation of the dress code.
Lackey also lodged a complaint against board member Daniel Frazier.
Frazier, Lackey said, had told the principal at one county school he would not rest until a teacher there had a specific classroom.
Lackey's letter caused SACS to launch the investigation that resulted in the district's current probation.
Lackey, a 28-year veteran, said his letter was the result of years of frustration - frustration fueled by the constant interference by board members.
The letter exploded like a bomb at 208 Bull St.
Several board members believe O'Sullivan knew about the letter in advance and should have stopped Lackey from sending it. Some even believe O'Sullivan orchestrated the campaign to involve SACS.
His motivation? To rein in those members who consistently stymied his policies.
"I said pretty openly that I think the Gary Lackey letter was probably the turning point," Lerch said. "I would say if you question the board, the board has an understanding that the superintendent knew Gary Lackey was going to send that letter to SACS, and the board also knows Gary Lackey well enough to know if the superintendent said, 'Let's work this out with the board,' that could have been done.
"But what happened was stirring SACS to the point of getting them involved."
Lackey, who told O'Sullivan via e-mail in May that he planned to complain to some higher authority, said he may have called the superintendent before sending the letter. O'Sullivan said he can't recall such a conversation before or after the complaint was sent. Both vehemently deny charges of collusion.
Board member David Wegman, a former Army sergeant with great respect for O'Sullivan, said he had a hard time coming to terms with the superintendent's failure to stop Lackey.
"My trust is not as strong as it was at one time," Wegman said two days before O'Sullivan's termination. What happened next was little more than a series of falling dominoes.
Rapid Change not fast enough
David Lerch was developing a plan to force an end to the board-superintendent hostilities.
An education consultant who has worked with school systems across the country, Lerch wasn't running for re-election to his Islands school board seat.
He had opposed O'Sullivan during much of his tenure, but was one of the few people who could engage the superintendent one-on-one.
Board business was gridlocked, and Lerch was emerging as the only one who could break it.
On Aug. 24, Golson, with the help of Lerch and Frazier, took one last shot at saving O'Sullivan's job.
Golson gathered the board, administrators, O'Sullivan and three community members for a retreat on Jekyll Island. He had hired a workplace consultant Magaly Rodriquez.
Rodriquez has mediated some of the country's most bitter union disputes, has helped save struggling factories and has worked with clients as large as International Paper and as small as a Minneapolis high school. The name of her company, Rapid Change, indicated exactly what the board and O'Sullivan needed.
The timing couldn't have been more critical. During an executive session before the retreat, Hamilton and O'Sullivan got into a shouting match so loud their voices were heard down the hallways at 208 Bull St.
Adding to the tension, the board had just learned of SACS' intention to investigate.
Rodriquez's method involves an exercise called "Speaking Truth to Power." In it, board members addressed O'Sullivan face-to-face with their grievances.
Each board member had to take responsibility for his or her emotions, saying "I make myself mad, John, when you..."
O'Sullivan's job was to listen and repeat the board member's concerns back to them without commenting or justifying his behavior.
The first board members got through the exercise respectfully. Hamilton initially was reluctant to engage in truth telling, but finally was drawn in. When Brady's turn came, according to board member Frazier, she maintained composure, but her body language showed a great deal of frustration.
"I had a sense that there was a lot more that needed to be done before tensions would be overcome and they could hear each other," Rodriquez said.
"I knew when I left it wasn't over."
The beginning of the end
Shortly after the retreat, O'Sullivan was asked by Golson and Lerch to determine the nature of the SACS allegations.
O'Sullivan responded with a military-style investigation.
He called all the system's principals together for a meeting. He had them list their complaints against individual board members and recorded them on sheets of chart paper.
He held similar discussions with his administrative staff.
O'Sullivan then combined the information into a summary report.
He had it distributed to board members during an executive section, with board attorney Lea Holliday passing them out and collecting them after the meeting. They destroyed all but two copies - one for O'Sullivan and one for Holliday.
Brady was incensed by the process and the vague nature of the complaints. She obtained an attorney in order to challenge O'Sullivan's assertion that the board as a whole had asked for such an investigation.
O'Sullivan's approach also strengthened the conviction of some board members that this was a vendetta against them. One accused him of operating in "character assassination mode."
The document paints a damning image of the board members whose names have been most closely linked to the SACS investigation - Brady, Cox and Hamilton.
The last straw
In mid-September, O'Sullivan received the phone call that changed everything.
It was Dick Greene, a senior associate with one of the nation's top superintendent search firms. His call provided the colonel with an exit strategy.
The East Baton Rouge Parish, La., school district was looking for a new leader, and Greene liked what he saw in O'Sullivan.
The two talked a couple of times that month. Around Oct. 1, Greene told O'Sullivan to fill out an application. The East Baton Rouge board wanted to make him a finalist, which they did on Oct. 4.
When that news became public in Savannah, O'Sullivan's base began to crack.
"What turned me off was when he went off to the headhunters," Fowles said. "He did that without the decency to tell his supporters, and then he lost what support he had."
Two days later, Oct. 6, the board met in executive session before heading into its regularly scheduled monthly school board meeting. It was a tense session with heated discussion between the superintendent, Brady and other board members.
"At least six board members at that point were interested in talking to O'Sullivan regarding ending his contract," Frazier said.
Lerch's plan began to jell.
Shortly after the Jekyll Island retreat, O'Sullivan told Lerch he'd like to start a new round of contract talks in October. Lerch agreed, but thought it would be in the board's best interest to search for other candidates at the same time. This would force the board to improve its relationship with O'Sullivan or settle on a better fit. O'Sullivan agreed.
After the superintendent applied for the East Baton Rouge job, the board moved to fast-track Lerch's plan. With O'Sullivan looking to leave, the board didn't want to be left in the cold.
"I saw (the search process) as maybe one possible way for the board and the superintendent to resolve this communication breakdown," Lerch said. "Something had to be done. Either you move forward and try to get people to work closer together or you split ways."
O'Sullivan, meanwhile, launched his final counter-attack.
In a lengthy Oct. 11 note to district staff, the superintendent stated that he felt their pain and would defend them against the forces that were out to get them. Toward the end of the letter, he announced his plans to open contract renewal talks to be completed by the end of the year.
Some board members, particularly Lerch, dismissed the request as unrealistic. Consensus built to launch a search.
O'Sullivan threw down the gauntlet ten days later.
In two different memos to Golson, he asked the board to vote on its willingness to start contract talks and its desire to start a superintendent search - essentially forcing a vote of confidence.
Citing board opposition, O'Sullivan withdrew his request for contract talks on Oct. 27, the day before he left Savannah for a 10-day vacation.
With the superintendent in retreat, Lerch continued his advance.
Lerch arranged private lunches with community, civic and religious leaders to get a sense of how the community would react if the board dismissed O'Sullivan.
One of those lunches was with Bob Colvin, president of Memorial Health University Medical Center and a member of the citizen committee that initially selected O'Sullivan for superintendent. During those conversations, Colvin said, business leaders told Lerch to focus on lifting the SACS probation.
"Most of us said that is your No. 1 priority. Get it resolved for the sake of parents and kids ... then do what you need to do in terms of the superintendent."
Colvin, who identified himself as one of O'Sullivan's biggest supporters in the business community, said O'Sullivan failed to build community allegiances - a skill the next superintendent will definitely need.
O'Sullivan returned from vacation Nov. 4 to find a chill running through the hallways of 208 Bull St. "I wasn't told anything," he said, "(but) you could feel the climate."
The next afternoon, Lerch and Golson met O'Sullivan in his office. Lerch told a defiant O'Sullivan the board had decided they needed to part ways.
When the superintendent said he didn't plan to leave, Lerch countered that the board would fire him unilaterally if necessary. That approach, Lerch explained, would leave the superintendent with no benefits beyond three months.
The two sides agreed to meet again Nov. 9, after O'Sullivan consulted his attorney.
Citing a death in the family, Golson opted out of the negotiations. Frazier filled in as his replacement.
O'Sullivan opened the talks with a request exceeding $500,000. Lerch bargained him down by holding the threat of a unilateral termination against him. The tension subsided and the two sides reached a deal: $350,000 in salary and benefits over the remaining 20 months of his contract.
O'Sullivan's last day was Nov. 10.
Hugh Golson, School Board President
Occupation: retired Savannah-Chatham County Educator Education: master of education in History
Reason for running: "To see what we could do to move education forward."
Susan Cox, District 1
Education: bachelor's degree in business
Reason for running: "Improving student achievement."
Daniel Frazier , District 2
Occupation: radio station public relations director
Education: high school graduate
Reason for running: "I like children, and I like helping children. I'm not doing this because I want to be a politician."
DeWayne Hamilton, District 3
Education: some college
Reason for running: "To make a difference in the academic lives of children and to measure programs and make sure we're getting results."
David Lerch, District 4 (outgoing)
Occupation: Educational consultant
Education: doctorate in education from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Reason for running: Noticed "a growing sense of community hostility toward the status of local education."
Janie Fowles, District 5
Education: masters degrees from Columbia University and St. John's University
Reason for running: "The position became vacant after Richard Mole passed away and I was encouraged to run by Jeanette Scott and Father Charles Hoskins."
Lori Brady, District 6
Education: High School graduate
Reason for running: "To help improve academic achievement and create stronger discipline policies and create a safer learning environment."
David Wegmann, District 7
Occupation: insurance agent
Education: some technical education
Reason for running: "To serve the community"
Jessie DeLoach, District 8 (outgoing)
Occupation: retired educator
Education: masters in mathematics
Reason for running: "My first objective was to bring a teacher and school administrator's perspective to the board. I was an advocate for teachers and for students and I always wanted to do what was in the best interest of children."
THE SUPERINTENDENT :
* did not communicate
* did not work well with others
* failed to build community allegiances
* often did not follow through
l THE INTERIM LEADER Colonel George W. Bowen is Interim Superintendent of Schools until a new school board superintendent is hired.
l FOLLOW THE SACS REPORT School board president Hugh Golson said, "It is now time for the board to digest the SACS report and do exactly what it says." He suggests that the board consider "policy governance." Under the Policy Governance Model, a board uses input from representative groups of school system residents to establish clear expectations for student achievement and school system operations. The model also requires that the superintendent determine the best means, to meet the board's established expectations. The role of the board is to listen to system "owners" and set desired achievement result. The superintendent being to achieve the expected results.
l RESIGNATIONS AND RECALLS Some residents and the Rev. Leonard Small's Unity Political Action Committee have suggested that the board resign. UPAC and others are also suggesting that board members Susu Cox, Lori Brady and DeWayne Hamilton should be subject to recall. Georgia law states every public official who holds elective office, either by election or by appointment, is subject to recall from office by electors who are registered and qualified to vote in the recall election and who reside in the electoral district from which candidates are elected to that office. According to the Georgia Recall Act of 1989, these are the official grounds for recall if the official has, while holding public office, conducted himself or herself in a manner which relates to and adversely affects the administration of his or her office and adversely affects the rights and interests of the public; and if the official has: l Committed an act or acts of malfeasance while in office l Violated his or her oath of office l Committed an act of misconduct in office; l Wilfully misused, converted or misappropriated, without authority, public property or public funds entrusted to or associated with the elective office to which the official has been elected or appointed l Is found guilty of a failure to perform duties prescribed by law. Discretionary performance of a lawful act or a prescribed duty shall not constitute a ground for recall of an elected public official.
How the School Board is Failing
Conflicts and power trips destroyed the relationship between the school board and the superintendent.
The goings on at the Savannah-Chatham County Board of Education play out like the reality television show "Survivor" - ever changing alliances and power struggles create distrust and discord until someone gets voted off.
Superintendent John O'Sullivan was the last to try to outwit, outplay and outlast the school board, but, like many before him, he, too, had his flame extinguished.
If the current board doesn't learn to enjoy its role as a policymaker and allow its superintendent to take on the challenge of running the system, critics say the O'Sullivan episode is bound to go into reruns with a different leading man.
"School board members think they are responsible to their constituents, and people come to them expecting them to solve their problems," said Martha Fay, who served as board president from 1987 to 1991.
"But they are there to do the legislation, not run the system."
The revolving door
Outgoing board member Jessie Collier DeLoach had to pause for a moment to recall the five superintendents she has seen come and go during her 20 years on the board.
"Our system is not known for keeping superintendents very long," DeLoach said.
And they rarely leave on happy terms.
Ron Etheridge resigned unexpectedly in 1988 to take another job after five years in the local system.
In 1990, Cecil Carter was asked to resign after just two years on the job.
Patrick Russo lasted seven years despite growing unpopularity with board factions. Russo was actively job hunting in 1998 when news of an illegitimate child prompted negotiations for an early resignation.
Virginia Edwards retired in 2001 - a year before her contract ended. Her three years as superintendent were spent battling the board over policy recommendations.
But this board's recent battle of wills with O'Sullivan over finances, personality and control has been the most intense and public.
Not exactly love at first sight
"The board was divided over O'Sullivan before he even started," said member Janie Fowles.
Ironically, some of the same board members eager to see O'Sullivan leave were among those who enthusiastically put him in the job.
O'Sullivan was hired on a 5-4 vote that split roughly along racial lines.
Fowles and DeLoach were among the four who opposed the brash, unyielding, retired military colonel from the beginning.
But O'Sullivan was able to win the support of the African-American board members by making academic and physical improvements in minority schools.
In the meantime, his abrasiveness caused him to fall out of favor with the others.
A smoldering fire
A military colonel working for a shot-calling school board may not have seemed like an awkward pairing at first.
But O'Sullivan, who was quick to criticize board members who didn't support his agenda, steamrolled his way out of a honeymoon.
"We're not elected to be rubber stampers," said member Susu Cox. "We're elected to represent those who elected us."
By the end of his first year, impolite exchanges and posturing between O'Sullivan and a growing faction of board detractors had snowballed into open bickering and disrespect.
The communication breakdown between O'Sullivan and Cox, Lori Brady and DeWayne Hamilton in particular, became obvious during public meetings.
"It started out being professional," Fowles said. "But eventually most of it became personal."
At times, it seemed as if the disgruntled trio were delaying decisions with demands for additional information and discussion just to spite an impatient O'Sullivan.
While planning the 2003-2004 budget, the board rejected O'Sullivan's recommendations so many times they nearly missed their tentative deadline to adopt the spending plan.
At one point Cox, Brady and David Lerch even presented their own budgets.
In O'Sullivan's second year, the displeased board members delayed his contract renewal for months. For his part, O'Sullivan only irritated them further by drawing up his own contract and issuing an ultimatum that the board accept it or else.
The board's fixation on taming O'Sullivan became so intense it began to affect progress.
Hugh Golson, an outspoken retired teacher, elected board president in 2002, was expected to put out the fire. Although public meetings became more civil, things continued to smolder behind the scenes.
The anti-O'Sullivan factions became destructive and divisive, Fowles said. She blames herself and the entire board for letting it happen.
"We didn't have the votes on that board to turn things around, but we did have mouths and the intelligence to talk and to write to the paper to let people know what was happening," she said. "We failed to do that."
The dam bursts
By the third year, it was open warfare.
The district's accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, found evidence to support complaints the board had overstepped its bounds as a governing body and was meddling in administrative affairs.
Brady, Cox and Hamilton, were singled out in complaint letters from Johnson High School Principal Gary Lackey and parent Roger Allen, both of whom openly supported O'Sullivan.
The board trio insisted all they had ever done was respond to the needs of the parents, teachers and students in their districts.
Rumors began to circulate the complaints made to SACS were part of an O'Sullivan-backed plan to one-up the board.
At that point, about half of the board members wanted to show O'Sullivan the door.
The others still believed he had the best interest of the district at heart until O'Sullivan's name surfaced as a finalist for the superintendent's job in East Baton Rouge Parish, La.
A month later, the board negotiated a mutual and immediate end to his contract and voted unanimously to send him packing.
While O'Sullivan may be gone, the district's problems remain. So, too, does at least a vestige of mean-spiritedness.
Some board members have now turned their attention to Lackey. They debated how they might silence him during a closed-door meeting Wednesday.
"They'll probably want to fire Gary Lackey next," Fay said. "He should be protected as a whistle-blower."
Despite those lingering issues, some members want to move past the controversy and on to a discussion of the system and its problems as opposed to the personalities running it.
If the board expects to be effective, maintain its SACS accreditation and avoid future conflicts over administrative control, they will have to change, said Golson.
He's pushing for a governance model designed to narrow board control to policy only.
"I'm hoping to clear things up and start fresh," Golson said.
"Those of us on the board know it's not working well."
And a third story, more of a summary.
O'Sullivan Out as Savannah-Chatham Schools Superintendent
November 10, 2004
The Savannah-Chatham school board is looking for a new superintendent. Col. John O'Sullivan turned in his resignation today, effective immediately.
"The motion to terminate the superintendent's contract is by mutual agreement," school board president Hugh Golson said during the meeting.
It comes on the heels of an investigation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) that ended with the school system being placed on probation for the 2005-2006 school year. School board members and O'Sullivan both agreed his leaving would be best.
"We know what's been going on over the last couple of months," said O'Sullivan. "Certainly, we're challenged by the SACS report but the board and I got to the point where, you know, it's like a lot of relationships where you just have to decide what's important. I decided it was in the best interest of my kids that somebody else be given a chance to see if they can do a better job."
There have been a lot of ups and downs during O'Sullivan's three years as superintendent. It all started when the man with a new vision for Savannah-Chatham schools was sworn in.
"A military background does a couple of things," O'Sullivan said at that time. "Number one, it gives you almost a value system, a mind set, a way of doing things that's different from a larger organization, including a school system. So I think it translates over."
No sooner did he take the helm of the school district than Col. O'Sullivan's promise of a bright future seemed to dim when accusations of a falsified resume surfaced. On his resume, O'Sullivan listed a military doctorate degree from the National War College. Although he did graduate, it wasn't a Ph.D. But O'Sullivan said it was the equivalent.
"That's how I see it, and I've made it very clear how I deal with it," he said. "I'm not going to tell you I feel bad about what I said. I feel clear in my mind that it's the best school and it was my top school."
After protest, O'Sullivan cleared that hurdle and was off and running, until the Chatham County Commission put an $11 million dollar choke hold on the school board's budget. But that didn't seem to stop the colonel, because with SAT and CRCT scores on the rise, the numbers seemed to be looking good. And so did the numbers on his pay raise when he was re-signed for a second term.
"To uproot him now, to bring in another person with all the money and trouble we've done in training in that direction, would be tough as a new person came on board with new programs," said Golson.
So once again, O'Sullivan grabbed the reins and was back in the race until the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools began its investigation and suspicions arose when O'Sullivan became a finalist for another job in Baton Rouge.
Soon after, the results of the SACS investigation came out, stating three board members were caught for illegally operating outside their guidelines.
O'Sullivan does not know whether he'll pursue another job as a school superintendent. In the meantime, deputy superintendent George Bowen will lead the district.
Reported by: Nicole Teigen, email@example.com
Walter Stern & Jenel Few
Savannah Morning News
INDEX OF MILITARIZATION OF OUR SCHOOLS