Executive Perspective

Who You Gonna Call?

by Paul D. Houston

Afew years ago the theme song for a popular movie “Ghostbusters” raised the question that when there was something strange in your neighborhood, “who you gonna call?” The answer, of course, was Ghostbusters.

The answer to the question of who you’re going to call when trouble happens in a school community is always the same--the superintendent. I have joked if I ever write a book on the superintendency I’m going to call it, What Are You Going To Do About It?” The reality is that superintendents are always the spear point when trouble erupts.


Many players comprise the education mix, from school board members to classroom teachers and principals. If school boards are doing their jobs properly, they are setting policy, approving goals and auditing progress. They are not doing the day-to-day work of implementation.


Likewise teachers and principals are the “boots on the ground,” to borrow a current term. They are on the front lines doing the grunt work of making progress on a daily basis. But when the unexpected arise and problems present themselves, it is the superintendent who must pull together all the pieces and make things happen up and down the line.


At the Forefront

That is why, after the recent disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it was the superintendents who stepped up. Across the country, hundreds of superintendents galvanized their school districts to receive displaced students. They helped welcome them and make them and their families feel at home in a strange place. They worked with their communities to pull together resources, and they organized their systems to provide the educational, psychological and in many cases the logistical help the children and families needed. No one asked, “What’s in it for me?” or even whether extra resources would be forthcoming.


In the directly affected areas, superintendents set aside their own personal issues and family crises. Their focus was how to get their schools back on line so the children who remained or who returned could continue their learning. In times of crises, Americaproduces thousands of heroes and heroines, and numbered among them are the many superintendents who stood firm in a strong wind and pulled it together for the children.


The reality now remains that, after the initial response is winding down, the long-range response that will be needed is staggering. Literally hundreds of schools are demolished and must be replaced. Hundreds of others need massive renovation. Yet, in these same communities, the tax bases that would normally be called upon to build schools no longer exist. And the taxpayers have no jobs to go to and no money to pay taxes. Teachers have been displaced and many may not return to their original districts. The infrastructure of the systems must be re-established and, in many cases rebuilt. That is why AASA has called for more than $10 billion in school reconstruction money to be supplied through federal sources.

Meanwhile, those superintendents who selflessly reached out to embrace the evacuated children will face the harsh reality that their local and state sources of money for resident children will not cover the costs of the additional flood of children many are now serving. From where will those resources come? Again, AASA has proposed a one-year federal allotment for each child accepted equal to the annual per-pupil cost.


Troubled Waters

Other problems are unresolved. Flexibility will be needed in handling these children. We hope the Department of Education will stand behind its pledge to ensure no school district will be penalized under provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act because it opened its doors to displaced and traumatized children. NCLB’s accountability standards should take into account that these children may fail to make adequate yearly progress. Likewise, we hope districts will not be subject to lawsuits because they failed to meet the timelines for producing individual education plans under IDEA for children who may have such a plan under 10 feet of water in Louisiana or Mississippi.


At the time of publication, the U.S. Secretary of Education has not said whether she will be flexible when it comes to regulations that cover homeless children. The reality is that thus far, Washingtonbureaucracy in all areas has been leaden and shown a remarkable insensitivity to the issues created by Katrina and Rita. Shouldn’t educators’ good intentions be trusted? When hundreds of thousands of children are homeless, the Department will, we hope, realize that it does not make sense to address problems on a case-by-case basis.


The reality is the flood waters of Katrina and Rita are but the first of the waves of trouble facing education across the region and country. President Bush has vowed to rebuild the region and make it better than before. He also acknowledged the role that extreme poverty played in the victimization of so many and said that also needs to be addressed. But I would remind the president that the poor are with us in every region and the public schools are the epicenter of dealing with so many who have been left behind.


The good news in all this troubled water is that superintendents will be doing what they always do--standing in the gap to provide leadership, vision and compassion. Superintendents aren’t bureaucrats, even though the pressure of the last few years have made them number crunchers. Superintendents aren’t just the “say no” people who stop parents, teachers and children from having their individual way. They are the village builders who mediate the injustices created by an unfair system and the collaborators who bring the pieces together. They are truly the ghostbusters who, in good times and bad, clear the air and make things safe. Who you gonna call? We all know the answer to that one.


Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail:phouston@aasa.org