At the Table: The Reality of Christina

Superintendent Lillian Lowery sets the record straight on the Christina School District fiasco. It’s not what you think.

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“The most salient aspect is that people lost their jobs,” Lowery says. “I have had to make performance evaluation decisions before, but it has never been where good people were doing very good work and because of circumstances completely out of our control, they had to suffer a Consequence that was just very disheartening.”
photograph by Christian Kaye

Lillian Lowery endured one of the most challenging
years a school superintendent could ever face.

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She took the helm of Christina School District on March 13, 2006, replacing Joseph Wise, who had begun an ambitious reform movement before he accepted a similar job in Florida.

Lowery soon found herself in one of the biggest public school controversies in state history. An audit of the district’s finances—a review that Lowery had requested as part of her three-year contract—uncovered a multi-million dollar budget deficit.

Lowery had inherited a mess.

More than a year of upheaval followed. Nearly 400 employees, including nurses, paras, teachers and even administrators lost their jobs. Salaries were frozen. Operations were streamlined. A second round of cuts last spring claimed another 97 positions.

In March, the Christina school board signed off on a plan it hoped would right the ship. The strategy included closing three struggling schools in Wilmington, but the city and two parents filed a successful injunction to block the closures.

Lowery joined Delaware Today on May 9 at the Back Burner in Hockessin. She seemed relaxed, despite having to re-live her tumultuous first 13 months at Christina.

Since then, she and the district continue to contend with declining enrollment as students abandon city and suburban schools for increasingly popular charter schools. The trend could result in further staff reductions because state funding is based on enrollment.

And some folks wonder why Lowery, who came to Delaware after serving as an assistant superintendent in Fairfax County, Virginia, has yet to buy a house here.

DT: So, how was your first year?

LL: As ironic as it may sound, it has been professionally a good year. What this year has done for me professionally is really focus me on who I am, what I believe in, what I’m willing to fight for. It has been probably the most difficult year that anyone in that district has ever experienced.

To have to come in and pretty much pick apart some pretty progressive reform initiatives for which people had invested lots of time and energy was not the way I wanted to come in as superintendent. And it was certainly disheartening to many people who had been a part of that.

The most salient aspect of that disheartening situation is that people actually lost their jobs. That’s just tough. I have had to make performance evaluation decisions before, but it has never been where good people were doing very good work on behalf of kids and the school district, and because of circumstances completely out of our control, they had to suffer a consequence that was just very disheartening.

Here are people who came to a district with a trust and a belief in what they were doing and what we said would be happening for and on their behalf and dealt with us in good faith and they were blindsided. We all were.

DT: At the time Christina was looking for a new superintendent, I don’t recall a lot of controversy. Some folks had bought into Wise’s reform plan and others never would. Is that what you were looking at coming in?

LL: I was looking at it in absolutely that way. And as I did my research for coming into the district, and once I was selected to be superintendent, working on building on what those initiatives had produced for this district, I was more in awe of all the work that the board and superintendent had done and was trying to determine how we kick this to the next level.

But being prudent, I asked for an audit. And this fiscal deficit was then presented as a completely different perspective of where we were going and what we were going to have to do.

DT: Is it standard for a superintendent to request an audit as part of his or her contract?

LL: If it is not, it should be. Most people who have had any training for district leadership would know that, no matter what people tell you, you’d better find out for yourself.

DT: You had no idea that something bad might turn up?

LL: At the end of the day, I was hoping that, OK, when we’re done with this audit, we’ll know exactly where we stand fiscally. I’ll know how much money we have in each fund account and then, as we move forward with the reform, we can determine how we’re going to best spend those dollars that we have to either continue or build upon.

DT: There were no whispers? No heads up? No, “Hey, this guy’s shifty?”

LL: Absolutely not. Coming in, I had read about the inordinate amount of audits that the district had had. I don’t know exactly the number. There’s a dispute of the number. That the district had been audited on several occasions probably should have sent a red flag. But I thought more in line of, here was a district engaged in reform and some people were pushing back on the reform, and how the reform was being implemented. And they were being cleared at every turn. So, beyond that, there was no indication that there was any kind of fiscal considerations that needed to be addressed.

DT: You accepted the job before the results of the audit came back, right?

LL: I accepted in January. March 13 was my start date. The audit took place in April and May. At that time, we were probably in a review of finance, not in audit, because actually it was the comprehensive review of finance that kicked off the subsequent audit finding.

DT: I read that your contract contains an exit clause. Is that standard, as well?

LL: That is always negotiated because everyone comes into a circumstance full of hope and expectation and good feelings. But as districts and leadership start navigating the waters of running a district, the considerations of that are based on whatever the circumstances are. Sometimes what one thought would work and be a good relationship just isn’t. So that’s usually negotiated, even in terms of how that would look if it is initiated by the board and if it’s initiated by the employee.

DT: You took the job and this happened. Did you still have a chance to get out via that clause?

LL: Yes.

DT: Did you ever consider using it?

LL: Never. It would have been so much nicer to know, mentally, what I was walking into. So I would have walked in

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