Profile

Keeping Cool as the Temperature Rises

by JAY P. GOLDMAN

Lillian Lowery happened to pay her monthly visit to Bayard Elementary School in Wilmington, Del., the same day an angry parent had come by the school to complain about a new teacher for not treating her daughter or her with respect.


Principal Don Patton invited Lowery, the district’s superintendent at the time, to sit in as the temperature escalated and the conversation between the screaming parent and the out-of-control teacher became personal, despite Patton’s attempts to steer the teacher back on track. As the parent jumped up to leave, Lowery calmly said to the mother reassuringly, “Please stay and let us work this out.”

Lilian LoweryLillian Lowery


The superintendent proceeded to resolve the disagreement and broker a settlement — with the mother agreeing to leave her daughter in the teacher’s classroom.

Patton, recalling the episode a year after it took place, said it typified Lowery’s capacity for empowering others and her ability to remain a cool cucumber no matter what the circumstance. He also bemoaned her loss to the 17,400-student Christina School District after just three years at the top.

Since January of this year, Lowery has been serving as state secretary of education, an appointment of Delaware Gov. Jack Markell. He had plenty of opportunities to watch Lowery in action before picking her because of all the time she spent at the state capital to deal with a $28 million deficit that she uncovered in the Christina district.

Lowery drew widespread kudos for how she handled the desperate financial straits in leading the district to regain solvency. She pressed the state’s General Assembly through what she good-naturedly called “vigorous interactions” to approve a $20 million, long-term loan. She cut 67 teachers, two nurses and 30 of the 54 central-office staff and waged a successful public campaign for a $10.4 million local referendum. The state subsequently relaxed its fiscal oversight.

Working through the deficit while funneling dollars to the classroom, Lowery admitted, represented “the best personal and professional experience I’ve ever had.” Having spent most of her administrative career in well-endowed Fairfax County, Va., she says she’d never encountered “a situation where the bottom had fallen out.”

Dan Domenech, the former superintendent in Fairfax County, had a chance to observe Lowery when he facilitated her school board retreat to work through the turbulent financial state and a districtwide reorganization — two issues that could undermine the fragile balance in the board-superintendent relationship.

“What I saw,” says Domenech, now AASA executive director, “was the same quality that had led me to appoint Lillian as principal of Fairfax High School [in 1999] — a calm but confident assurance in the face of conflict that helped to dissipate the school board’s anxiety. Lillian can be assertive without anyone realizing that she is asserting herself. It is a unique leadership quality that inspires confidence.”

Now on the state level, where she has become a champion of the governor’s progressive reform plan known as Vision 2015, Lowery, an AASA member since 2003, is fast learning what’s involved in crafting and promoting good education policy. By late summer, she had succeeded, working with others in the state, in getting three new bills through the state legislature and on to Markell’s desk for signing. One permits greater flexibility at the local level; another expedites feedback to schools from the state’s student assessment system.

Her top berth in Dover is a world removed from her upbringing in Gastonia, N.C. It’s also quite a departure professionally. Lowery stubbornly refused to consider periodic invitations to apply for administrative positions during the 17 years she spent teaching English to middle school and high school students. She remained steadfast for as long as she could hold off the talent hunters. “I resisted,” she says.

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

BIO STATS: LILLIAN LOWERY

Currently: Delaware secretary of education

Previously: superintendent, Christina School District, Wilmington, Del.

Age: 54

Greatest influence on professional career: My grandmothers were two women I greatly admired for being matriarchs with none of the opportunities I’ve had. On the professional level, in Fairfax County, Va., Superintendent Dan Domenech and deputy superintendents George Stepp and Paula Johnson put me in situations that challenged me.

Best professional day: The day the state of Delaware confirmed me as Gov. Jack Markell’s nominee as the Delaware secretary of education. It’s an incredible opportunity to work with a visionary governor who deems education a moral imperative for posterity.

Books at bedside: Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — And How It Can Renew America by Thomas Friedman; and Whale Done!: The Power of Positive Relationships by Kenneth Blanchard

Biggest blooper: Based on cold, hard facts of underpopulated schools in the Christina district, we drafted a plan for closures. Consequently, the community and elected officials successfully challenged the decision. The court brought all sides together to redistribute students and honor the wishes of those most negatively affected. We engaged in community forums — which should have happened first, but sometimes results must unfold in inexplicable ways.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: To borrow a phrase from Ken Blanchard, “The power of positive relationships.”