In a state struggling with a $606 million budget deficit, the secretary of education, who oversees about a third of the state’s budget, would appear to face an overwhelming task—unless, of course, that secretary brings to the job a steely resolve forged in the white-hot crucible that was the Christina School District.
Meet Dr. Lillian Lowery.
Lowery arrived in Delaware from Virginia in March of 2006, a rookie superintendent eager to oversee the Christina District, the state’s largest, which had instituted innovative programs under the guidance of her predecessor, Dr. Joseph Wise—programs which, she said, she hoped to take “to the next level.” But first she asked the state to conduct a financial audit of the district. The results blindsided both Lowery and her board of education. It revealed a $28 million deficit, about $17.5 million of which was incurred by 145 employee positions filled without state funding.
“What we sold her and what she got were two different things,” says James “Jimmy” Durr, Christina District board president. “What was presented to her was a district on the cutting edge of changing the face of education in Delaware. When we did that financial audit, we found out we were on the brink of bankruptcy. Lillian could have turned around and walked away, saying ‘This is not what I signed up for.’ She could’ve blamed the board. But she didn’t. Instead she said, ‘This is the situation we’re in. Now how can we together as a team correct this and educate our children?’”
Lowery and the board then began the Herculean task of restoring the district’s fiscal health. Through several rounds of job cuts, creative budgeting, a multimillion-dollar emergency loan from the state, and a spending freeze that included her $162,000 salary, they began a slow climb out of the financial hole.
Their work was done under intense scrutiny from the media and the community, which expressed its shock and anger through numerous letters to The News Journal and messages to Lowery and board members. Yet by November 2007, enough confidence had been restored for voters to pass—by a 72 percent margin—a tax increase of 2.7 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
When Lowery took the Christina job, she quickly developed a list of contacts that included Newark’s mayor and city council members, state legislators, business and church leaders, and the state treasurer, one Jack Markell. Some of her conversations with Markell naturally included education, especially since Markell was a graduate of Newark High School. Mostly, however, Markell “wanted to get to know me,” says Lowery.
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Nearly three years later, when Governor-elect Markell began putting together his cabinet, he made sure Lowery was among the nearly one dozen candidates culled from a national search for secretary of education. The selection process proved to be lengthy, with Markell announcing his choice on January 19, weeks after several other key positions were filled.
“I was vetted very carefully,” says Lowery. “I was interviewed four times by four different groups of people. It was a no-nonsense, straightforward kind of process. They were very explicit about what their expectations were, the main expectation being we have to get this right, and we have to do it with a sense of urgency.”
Scott Green, a Delaware attorney, former MBNA executive and member of the UD Board of Trustees, chaired the Transition Team Interview Committee that recommended Lowery. He believes there is no more important job among all the cabinet positions. He has high expectations for the new secretary.
“We in the Delaware community have been able to see her under fire for the last couple years, so we know a financial crisis isn’t going to scare her away,” Green says. “She won’t shrink from the fight. I expect to see a very systematic, calm, logical, reasoned approach to the things in the education system that need to be fixed. I’m completely confident in her ability, and I’m as excited as everybody else to watch her.”
In announcing Lowery as his choice, Markell said she “shares my passion for establishing a school system in which every child arrives ready to learn and every teenager graduates ready to succeed in higher education or the job market.” He said her success in guiding Christina out of a financial crisis “shows she will be a great asset to my administration as we work to make Delaware’s education system as effective and efficient as possible during these tough economic times.”
The 54-year-old Lowery oversees an agency responsible for nearly 125,000 students in a school system that ranks eighth in spending per student but only 27th in overall performance nationally. As a result, families who can afford to often send their children to private schools. Lowery understands such decisions, but she hopes to reverse the trend.
“At the end of the day, your child is your best investment, and people are going to do what they think is in the best interest of their children, whether they choose public or private schools,” she says. “So what we have to do is become competitive enough to attract students from every socio-economic strata.”
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Her goal is to make Delaware schools “world class.” It’s a commendable ambition, but one that will be difficult in the face of the budget slashing all branches of state government face. As she tackled the budget, Lowery says she was encouraged by Markell’s philosophy of collaboration across agencies, as well as the new administration’s focused meetings and decisions based on “hard data.”
As for the cuts she might recommend to her boss, Lowery says “everything is on the table,” including consolidating purchases and services across districts and, possibly, personnel cutbacks.
Her trial by fire during her Christina days should stand her in good stead as secretary of education. She says she took away two primary lessons from the experience. “Number one, be transparent,” she says. “I don’t try to sugar coat, and I don’t try to tell people what they want to hear. I share facts with them as I know the facts to be. And secondly, the schools and the school district belong to the people, not to the superintendent. Sometimes we’re going to disagree, but it is my responsibility to include as much community engagement as possible around every decision I make about the community’s children.”
Her administrative style—one that puts students first—has spawned scores of Lowery cheerleaders in Virginia and Delaware.
Says Durr, who worked with Lowery for three years in Christina, “With Lillian, what you’re going to get is truth, honesty and a hundred percent effort all the time.”
The new job, like her last one, will be difficult. But at least this time there will be fewer surprises. And once again, failure will not be an option.