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Carol S. Comeau: A Ground’s-Eye Style of Leading

by Jay P. Goldman

Thirty years ago this fall, after a decade as a stay-at-home mom, Carol Comeau returned to the workforce as a part-time playground aide at the elementary school in Anchorage, Alaska, attended by her three children.

Referring to its rough-and-tumble nature, she says of the work: “I got great practice for this job—a ground’s-eye view of the schools.”

Comeau, a native of Berkeley, Calif., though an Alaska resident since 1965, now commands the uppermost perch as superintendent of the Anchorage Public Schools, her employer of 30 years. After four years in the role, she remains as anchored as ever in the lives of students, parents and teachers, drawing raves for her down-to-earth commitment from an array of close observers.

Says Steve Lindbeck, an editor with the Anchorage Daily News: “The first time I spoke with her was about 1998 and what I remember is this: Her values and her language were clear, direct and important. She conveyed this to me in the first 30 seconds, maybe less, of our conversation.”

Adds Rich Kronberg, president of the local teachers’ union: “Many of my members refer to administrators who have forgotten what it is like to be a teacher as someone who has ‘gone over to the dark side.’ Carol’s behavior is the antithesis of that attitude.”

More than anything, Comeau has rolled a lifetime of experiences as a parent, teacher and principal into a job where she has mastered the fine art of personal communication as her sharpest-honed tool of leadership. Comeau insists on responding herself to every e-mail posting that comes into her forum on the district’s website, which she has used to solicit feedback and questions about the most sensitive issue of the moment. In the past few years, those have dealt with such issues as severe budget reductions, a controversial textbook and proposed school boundary changes.

“Even if I can’t answer the question directly, I’ll tell them that I’m asking a colleague to do so. Just the fact that I take the time to respond personally means a lot to people,” she says.

Shortly after the school district lost a lawsuit this year filed by the Anchorage Daily News over the district’s refusal to release details of a cash settlement relating to a student’s suicide, the superintendent turned up at the editor’s office to pledge her commitment to avoid confidential legal settlements in the future. She followed up the promise in a formal letter.

“This has earned her enormous credibility in our community and from people of all points of view,” says Lindbeck, the newspaper’s chief editorial writer.

The unorthodox response to the legal setback did not surprise her board president at the time, Jake Metcalfe. “She’s a person people trust and that’s how she conducts business,” he says.

Having worked under seven superintendents in Anchorage before her own appointment, Comeau says while she’ll always be forthright and direct in speaking what’s on her mind, she will never stop short of being collaborative internally and externally on key decision making. That personal inclination stems from a bitter seven-day teachers’ strike she helped to lead in 1979 that in her mind resulted from entrenched district leadership that got caught up in the executive trappings of the office. (Comeau became the union president in 1984-85 while an elementary school teacher.)

At 48,200 students, Anchorage is by far the state’s biggest and most diverse district, and Comeau commands considerable influence on the legislative front. But having seen some of the desperate living conditions facing students in many of the state’s remote communities, she chooses to exercise her clout for statewide improvements in school aid—actions that have served to close a festering urban/rural divide that has existed since the mid-1990s.

“Carol is the first Anchorage superintendent to bridge this gap and advocate vigorously on behalf not only of her district but rural districts as well,” says Lindbeck, the editorial writer. “She has pulled this off by arguing that if rural schools do not succeed, rural families will be forced to migrate to the urban areas, thereby increasing the burdens on the urban districts.”

These actions have earned Comeau enormous gratitude from colleagues, who selected her as Alaska Superintendent of the Year for 2004.

At home, she’s had to spend some time of late acclimating new members of the Anchorage school board (all seven positions have turned over since her appointment in 2000). The greatest challenge? “Getting them used to my high-energy style,” she claims.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

Bio Stats:

Carol Comeau

Currently:
Superintendent, Anchorage, Alaska

Earlier:
Teacher, principal and assistant superintendent, Anchorage

Age:
63

Greatest Influence on Career:
The 1979 teachers’ strike in Anchorage. I learned the importance of working with employees and keeping communication open and being collaborative.

Best Professional Day:
The day I was hired at Ocean View Elementary School in September 1975 as a 2nd-grade teacher. I was truly excited to be hired as a teacher after an 11-year break.

Books at Bedside:
Magnolia by A. Van Jordan; Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi; 9/11 Commission Report; Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama; No Child Left Behind: The Politics and Practice of School Accountability by Paul Peterson and Martin West; and Failure is Not an Option by Alan Blankstein

Biggest Blooper:
Sending a sarcastic and angry e-mail to someone in error. I forgot to change the address line. I immediately apologized but it took a long time to repair the damage. The lesson is don’t send an e-mail unless you want to see it in the newspaper or in court.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:
My professional organization helps me network and is a resource for me. I am active on the state board of directors.