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Thompson seen as someone who steps on toes

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Before Clayton County school board members interviewed the finalists for the corrective superintendent position, the official leading the search warned they might not like what they hear.

Richard Greene, with the firm conducting the search, reported to the board that "one of [the finalists] told me, 'I am probably going to step on some toes, but it's going to be 18 months of straightening out what's wrong.'"

John W. Thompson, one of the two finalists for the Clayton County corrective superintendent position, is remembered in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he served as superintendent for more than four years, as someone who stepped on toes.

During his tenure there, Thompson's detractors decried him as "imperialist," while his supporters said he was the only one who had the courage to make tough choices and stand up to a bickering and meddling school board.

"He was very strong willed," said Daniel Romaniello, Sr., a Pittsburgh school board member. "He wasn't much on having discussions. Instead of there being a dialogue, there was an argument."

Johnnie Monroe, pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, said the superintendent's boldness and insistence on change conflicted with some of the city's long-time power brokers.

"Dr. Thompson came here as a well-dressed man who was quite sure of himself," Monroe said. "He did not play the old-line politics and he did not kow-tow to the old games. He tried to be straight up. A lot of folks couldn't deal with that."

Thompson arrived in Pittsburgh with 26 years of education-administration experience.

He started as a teacher in 1966, teaching high school math and coaching basketball in Salisbury N.C. Eight years later, in 1974, at Reidsville Senior High School in Reidsville, N.C., he was made an assistant principle. After earning bachelors, master's, specialist and doctoral degrees in North Carolina, Thompson left the state in 1991 to take a position with the Kentucky Department of Education. In 1994, he was made superintendent of schools in Tulsa, Okla., and then went to Pittsburgh in 2000.

Even with all that experience and that long record, though, some members of the Pittsburgh school board say they didn't know who John Thompson was, when he arrived.

Theresa Colaizzi, a school board member, said the board hired Thompson on the recommendation of a search committee, when they should have taken the responsibility themselves and should have gone to Tulsa and talked to the people there.

"Not the board members," Colaizzi said, "the people. The actual people. Go to the grocery store, go to the hair salon, ask people what they know about John Thompson, and they'll tell you. I would have appreciated learning from [Tulsa's] experience."

Later, when Thompson was in the middle of his contract as Pittsburgh school superintendent, and the board and the community were divided into deep pro-Thompson and anti-Thompson factions, Colaizzi did meet members of the Tulsa community.

"This one lady told me," Colaizzi recalled, "'John Thompson will divide you until he unites you in wanting him gone.'"

Thompson's first act as Pittsburgh school superintendent was furnishing his office. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the furnishings cost about $500,000 at a time when the city and the schools were in financial crisis. School officials were debating whether to raise already-high taxes or close schools, and the move struck some as self-centered. The move seemed to symbolize -- along with his full-time driver and his, reportedly, expensive tastes in clothes -- an air of detached superiority. More than four years later, when Thompson was forced out, people were still criticizing the "half a million" he spent on the office.

Romaniello said the expense may well have been necessary, but the way Thompson refused to explain, and the way he dealt with the criticism, set the tone for everything.

"He wouldn't talk about it. He just said, 'I'm allowed to do it and I did it.' That was primarily the mentality of his tenure," Romaniello said.

It is not clear what Clayton County school board members are looking for in a corrective superintendent, but the role has been described, by search leader Richard Greene, as guiding the school administration to meet the mandates required to keep accreditation. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is requiring the school system to meet the mandates -- including removing undue outside influences, reviewing board policies, and auditing attendance and financial records -- by Sept. 1.

The search firm was originally looking for a permanent superintendent, but found from community feed-back that the public is not confident in the current board's abilities to make that decision. The search firm recommended that a one-year, corrective superintendent be brought in, someone who will clean-up the school system, but someone, too, who would help restore confidence in the system.

The corrective superintendent is also supposed to have no long-term designs on the permanent position, and have a record of going into difficult situations and making a difference.

During Thompson's time in Pittsburgh, he was faced with a set of serious fiscal challenges, each of which carried touchy, political dimensions.

The city had a number of schools which were draining money and seemed. to some, ready to be closed. But the schools were important to the local communities, and some of the suggested closings were met with strong community opposition. The city had a $40 million budget deficit when Thompson arrived, but there was strong reaction to any mention of raising taxes.

"The school district was in chaos when he got here," Monroe said. "We were running a large deficit, and he came and he eliminated that deficit. He began to move the district in the right direction, academically, and he brought in some of the right people to get the job done."

Monroe said Thompson, through his "bold leadership," was successful in pushing back against the board and limiting the board's rampant micromanaging.

"He tried to move them away from micromanaging, to allow him to be the superintendent," Monroe said. "By and large, John was able to move many of the board members away from that, and allow him to do what he was supposed to do."

Eventually, though, the board pushed harder than Thompson, and his contract was, pointedly, not renewed. The board then took another step and bought out the last four-and-a-half months of Thompson's contract, paying a reported $150,165, rather than put up with him for another four and a half months.

"It was just time," Romaniello said.

The editorial writers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette depicted Thompson as a superintendent who tried, but couldn't quite manage to bear all the various weights, eventually collapsing under them.

"The politics of trying to close under-utilized schools, while raising test scores in an unfriendly fiscal climate and declining enrollment base doomed ... the well intentioned John Thompson," according to one editorial. Another editorial said he put all his attention into "putting the district's fiscal house in order," but was so single-minded he ignored other important things.

Thompson didn't ignore the children, though.

Romaniello recalls that his son would come home from school with stories about "Dr. Thompson" in the cafeteria.

"He genuinely liked kids," said Romaniello. "He didn't care who they were or what they were like. He genuinely enjoyed being around them ... He'd bring pizza and have an assembly with the kids. Dr. Thompson spent a ton of time in the schools with the kids and he made it, a little bit, so that they enjoyed where they were."

Monroe recalls that Thompson could be found anywhere there were Pittsburgh children in trouble.

"You could depend on Dr. Thompson being there in the hospital, in the home, out on the street, because he saw each child as being his," Monroe said.

That attentive touch of Thompson's did not reach the board, however.

Colaizzi said Thompson's tenure in Pittsburgh taught her "what a relationship between the board and the superintendent shouldn't be like," and said she wouldn't speak more specifically, for fear of being sued.

"The board became divided," she said.

Romaniello said Thompson wasn't at the root of the board divisions, but the man "wasn't doing a very good job of trying to bring the board together."

At some point, according to Romaniello, the board began to spend a lot of time fighting about Thompson.

More than three years after the superintendent departed, Thompson is still a controversial figure in parts of Pittsburgh. Monroe said Thompson represents the future that Pittsburgh is refusing to accept, and Romaniello said the school administrators are "still trying to undo the things that he did when he was here."

Thompson may have already shown Clayton County some of his toe-crushing boldness.

During his interview with board members, according to Greene, the corrective superintendent candidate said he would need a budget line item of $1-2 million for "corrective actions."

He told the board that "outside consultants who are experts in the field" should come in and perform audits of "every single facet of the school system." A sweeping review of the whole system would be necessary, according to Thompson, looking at the whole system, so the board would know where things stood with finances, organization, curriculum and performance.

If hired, Thompson, or the competing candidate, could receive a package worth $325,000, including "salary and fringe benefits," for a year as Clayton County's corrective superintendent, according to Greene.

Repeated attempts to reach Thompson for this article were unsuccessful.

The board could make its decision as early as Saturday.