January 28, 2010
|The Age of the Rock Star Superintendent|
Boy, does School Superintendent Mo Green know how to put on a show.
Green kicked off his tenure at Guilford County Schools in January 2009 with a catered, televised release of his four-year strategic plan for the school system at Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in Jamestown, complete with poetry and performance art. Green threw a similar bash at High Point University's Hayworth Fine Arts Center on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
The event drew a good crowd of Guilford County politicos – state Reps. Laura Wiley and John Blust; Guilford County Commissioners Skip Alston, John Parks and Bruce Davis; High Point City Councilmembers Bernita Sims and Mary Lou Blakeney; and Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox, as well as members of the Guilford County Board of Education and a standing-room only audience.
This time, too, Green didn't ignore the entertainment, providing the Grimsley High School Madrigal Singers doing a lovely number called "Be the Change."
At the GTCC event, the performing students worked Green's "educational excellence" mantra into their presentations, which I called "creepy" – which it was, if only because co-opting students to support even the most benign policy initiatives came across as manipulative. Green avoided that technical problem this time, as the song called on listeners to "reach out and lend a hand to those whose lives are less than easy" – a sentiment not obviously tied to Green's PR push.
When I pulled up in front of the Hayworth Fine Arts Center before the show, a weary police officer asked how much camera equipment I needed to unload. He obviously felt besieged by the many television crews that filled the media gallery in the back of the theater.
Welcome to the era of the rock star superintendent.
The phrase isn't mine – it was coined by Patrik Jonsson of The Christian Science Monitor in a 2008 piece describing a new breed of superintendent courted by consolidated school systems with big bucks to act as school system turnaround artists – but it does a pretty good job of describing how school superintendents, once boring educational functionaries who spent years serving quietly behind one desk, wound up being high-profile free agents drawing large salaries – and in this case, actual television audiences.
I acquit Green of any egotism in that regard. On stage at these events, and in person, he's as modest and self-effacing as anyone you'd care to meet. Green isn't a rock star superintendent because of his ego. He's not like a Georgia superintendent candidate profiled in the The Christian Science Monitor piece who wanted a Lincoln Town Car, a driver and money to pay a personal bodyguard. But Green makes $250,000 a year, not much behind the $275,000 the Georgia candidate wanted, and far more than any superintendent could have dreamt of in the days before consolidated school systems.
The corporate aspirations of consolidated school systems are ultimately why public spectacles on the level Green is cranking out are jarring to anyone old enough to remember superintendents who were educators first and CEOs second, if at all – mostly principals with a lot of time on the frontlines who wanted to get in a few years in the central office before retirement.
Consolidated school systems have gotten so large (Guilford County Schools has 10,000 employees, making it the largest employer in the county, far larger than any private corporation), and their budgets so huge in relation to the counties they serve (Guilford County Schools' operating budget is $590 million this year, and it's sitting on $457 million in school bond authority) that they've become more professional in their public relations and more corporate in their cultures.
Guilford County Schools now has a cabinet of senior administrators (so called). For all I know it may have a joint chiefs of staff and a navy. Green's speech at High Point University was billed as the school system's first state of the schools address, which just oozes presidential pretension. I halfway expected the school board members to come in wearing marching-band striped judicial robes, like Chief Justice William Rehnquist at President Bill Clinton's 1995 State of the Union speech.
Still, after the fortress mentality that prevailed under previous Guilford County superintendents, with the superintendent and administrators largely avoiding the public, Green's visibility can also be looked at as a breath of fresh air. Guilford County Schools Central Region Superintendent Terry Worrell thought so.
"I was a high school principal before he came, and I don't remember these sort of things out in the community," Worrell said after the speech. "Mo is much more out in the community."
Green's state of the schools address, like most state of the union addresses, contained few surprises. Last year there was some public suspense because Green used the GTCC event to release his strategic plan, which almost no one had yet read. This year, Green had to be content with updating the audience on the school system's successes and failures in implementing that plan.
So far, Green's batting average is pretty good. He reported that Guilford County Schools exceeded, met or made progress on 19 of the 24 academic goals for the year in the strategic plan, including respectable improvements by students on state end-of-grade and end-of-course tests.
Much of that increase came because the state, for the first time, this year, allowed the school system to retest students and use the scores from their second attempt. To Green's credit, he pointed that fact out carefully in the speech.
Green used the event to announce his One Million Books campaign, in which the school system is challenging its students to collectively read one million books – 14 books per student – a program that was piloted at four elementary schools last fall with the help of local Rotary clubs.
The speech came just three days after Guilford Count Schools released the results of a survey of parents and county residents on the school system's performance. I characterized the results as "good but not great" in another story, but Green was harsher in his assessment. He said county residents think, "We're doing a fair, to maybe good, job."
Green said that he, his administrators and his principals had gotten the message.
"We're talking about being excellent," he said. "You can tell that we've got a long way to go."