Pledge of Performance
Sensing where the power lies, this superintendent has joined with politicians to help create workable education policies
Hillsborough County Superintendent Earl Lennard always said he would put his money where his mouth is. This year, he had to pay up.
When Florida implemented its "A+ Plan for Education" in 1999, which assigned letter grades to each school, principals and teachers could volunteer to tie 5 percent of their pay to student performance. Taking the idea up a notch, the superintendent of the nation's 13th largest district vowed to return 5 percent of his salary if any Hillsborough County School received an "F."
At first, Lennard got away with his braggadocio. "I got by three years without [having to pay]," Lennard says. "It did catch me this year, though there were changes in the way the FCAT grading was applied to the criteria for each of the A, B, C, D, F, designations."
Lennard readily refunded $7,800 of his annual salary, and it went to the four schools that had received F's. At the same time, the number of "A" schools in the district increased from 39 in 2001 to 63 in 2002, and 66 out of the district's 195 schools improved their letter grades.
Though Lennard's pledge had the overtones of a publicity stunt, he says it was his way of demonstrating his commitment to the education law. "I wanted to make a statement that showed support for the pay-for-performance program," Lennard says. "I really didn't intend for it to gain so much notoriety, [but] I felt strongly that a part of my performance was ensuring that we did not have an F school, and I wanted to model that."
Lennard's high-profile, and somewhat political, championing of the legislation is in line with a strategy that he has long implemented as an administrator. "Pretty early on he learned two rules," says Jim Hamilton, deputy superintendent of instructional support. "They're in charge; and we're not. Butting heads with [legislators] isn't going to change the dynamic of that reality."
Lennard's embrace of this simple philosophy led him to forge close cooperative relationships with Gov. Jeb Bush and many Florida legislators.
It also found him a place on the national political stage. He has testified before Congress about charter schools, and Secretary of Education Rod Paige has visited Hillsborough to appear with Lennard on "The Superintendent's Forum," his cable TV program.
Lennard also recently concluded his yearlong tenure as president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, a position that allowed him to directly influence education policy in Florida. "We worked very hard to ensure we were at the table when discussions were taking place concerning educational policy," Lennard says of state superintendent group. "We met with the governor on a regular basis to provide ... input into issues, answer questions, provide data."
AT THE LEGISLATIVE TABLE
Lennard has been in Hillsborough since 1963, teaching at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Today, his clout means he's often out of the district. There have been occasions-particularly during hurricane season or when air traffic was halted on Sept. 11, 2001-when cancelled flights put him on the road after midnight, rushing home for an early-morning board meeting.
But he believes these efforts are valuable for his constituents. "One of the things that pays off for the district is [that] every piece of legislation has to have an implementation process for it to occur," he says. "[The district has] the ability to be on the front-end of implementation, because we're aware of what's going on."
Since being appointed superintendent in 1996, Lennard is often a step ahead in educational policy. Several years before Florida implemented its statewide testing program, Lennard had brought one to Hillsborough. He also did away with general diploma tracks and sought to end social promotion before those topics became hot-button issues in his state, Hamilton says.
These career achievements, along with Lennard's leadership during recent budget cuts and the district's release from a federal desegregation order, led FADSS to name him Florida's 2002 Superintendent of the Year.
Hamilton says, "He's ... close to one-of-a-kind in terms of a level of pragmatism that actually accomplishes something."
Rebecca Sausner, email@example.com, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.