Profile

JAMES E. SWEENEY

by Jay Goldman
Jim Sweeney received a parting shot from the editorial board of his local newspaper that was unusually sweet for a superintendent of an urban school system: “(S)trong principled leadership can turn around even the most wayward ships.”

Sweeney’s deserved kudos from the Sacramento Bee followed six years of passionate work at the helm of the Sacramento City Unified School District, from which he retired in early July. Wasting little time moving on to his next professional assignment, he started in August as a superintendent in residence with the San Francisco-based Stupski Family Foundation.

Sweeney’s sense of urgency and purpose in the superintendency of the state capital’s 52,000-student school district contributed to dramatic improvements in academics and school environment that captured wide attention. As Susanna Cooper, an associate editor at the Sacramento Bee stated in an editorial: “Sweeney … helped put Sacramento on the exclusive national map of urban school systems on the move.”

As someone who spent 17 years as an education professor, most of it at decidedly rural Iowa State University, he was hardly the likely choice for the superintendency of a big city district in considerable disarray. Before coming to Sacramento as deputy superintendent in 1994, Sweeney’s only full-time administrative work came in a couple of high school principalships in Norwood and St. Regis Falls, two tiny communities in New York’s expansive North Country, where he was born and raised.

Yet Sweeney’s many years as a well-traveled consultant to school districts on climate and performance evaluation issues had given him hands-on know-how and the systems perspective to effect meaningful change quickly. He was appointed superintendent in February 1997, and within three months had swept the decks of headquarters personnel whom he deemed unable or unwilling to make the classroom the center of the school district’s orbit.

“I got people’s attention,” says Sweeney of his removal of 30 central-office administrators in one swoop. “The question for me became how to build a climate of trust when you’re pushing the envelope all the time. It’s really all about relationships, being open and honest, paying attention and treating people in a respectful and caring way.”

What this means for any organizational leader in dealing with personnel, he adds, “is sitting down to say things you’d rather not have to say and things they’d rather not hear.”

With help from a largely supportive seven-member school board that had been reconstituted shortly before naming him superintendent, Sweeney continued to take calculated risks right up to this past spring. He gained approval to close Sacramento High School, the second oldest operating secondary school west of the Mississippi River, and reopen it as a charter high school to be run by a former professional basketball star, Kevin Johnson, an alumnus of the school. (The latter has been held up by a legal challenge.) Earlier he authorized the opening of four small charter secondary schools funded by the Gates Foundation.

Community leaders recognized Sweeney’s nontraditional nature early on when he informed the school board he did not want to include a buyout clause in his own contract.

“For him, it wasn’t the job but the work,” says Jay Schenirer, a Sacramento board member since 1996.

Others saw in Sweeney a proclivity to move from talk to urgent action, always driven by data. “He walks fast and carries himself with a purpose,” says Bernard Bowler, a retired IBM executive. “You know he intends to get results by how he moves.”

Sweeney, who will turn 66 in November, admits he started earlier this year to feel strangled by the constant demands of the superintendency, but he didn’t make his decision to retire until June 24, the last day of the school year. He called an emergency meeting of his cabinet to say, “Look, I’m doing this for me.”

Yet he’s already returned to what he loves best, working on systemwide reform issues as a consultant to less-experienced superintendents around the country. He says working for the Stupski Foundation, with its social justice agenda, is a perfect fit.

“I wasn’t ready to walk away and do nothing,” Sweeney says. “I still want to make a difference, to stay connected.”

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