Part II: Picking Up the Pieces
By Juliet McShannon
Second of two parts
April 11 -- In April 2001, shortly after renewing his contract, John Deasy handed in his resignation as superintendent of schools in Coventry, Rhode Island.
Deasy’s sudden resignation left the small district of 6,000 students he had headed since 1996 in a leadership crisis. Deasy’s last day would be June 1, and officials were put in the unenviable position of effectively having two months to find a replacement.
The search for a new superintendent proved fruitless, with the district undergoing numerous leadership changes until Kenneth DiPietro took the helm in June 2002, one year after Deasy's departure.
"He left the place in a shamble," said Ray Spears, who made an unsuccessful bid to reclaim his position as superintendent. "Any time a superintendent walks out in May or June of a school year, it is difficult to find a replacement. It was surprising to me that Deasy agreed to a further three year contract and then resigned."
But Joseph Butler, who served as chair of the Coventry School Committee, the equivalent of the local School Board, during Deasy’s tenure, was not surprised to see Deasy seize the opportunity to head west to run the 12,500 student district in Santa Monica and Malibu.
“He didn’t break his contract,” Butler said. “He told us a good superintendent lasts five to six years, tops. That’s the life span of any good superintendent. Then you have to move on to put your ideas to work elsewhere.”
Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters believes the timing of the superintendent's departure was not a reason for blame.
"The timing of his leaving was unfortunate, although I don't hold it against him," McWalters said. “John was trapped between his good intentions and what monies the district finally had."
If Coventry schools faced financial problems, Deasy’s controversial policies and his sudden departure did not necessarily make matters worse, McWalters contends.
“He devised a revolutionary contract with the teacher's union,” McWalters said. “There weren't any fiscal problems left in his wake.
“For three or four years before John came in, state aid was going up from about 1994 to 1998,” McWalters said. “Then it became tight.”
Mary Kelley, an administrator in the Coventry District and acting superintendent for two months after Deasy's departure, agrees.
“There were multiple factors that led to financial troubles in the district," Kelley said. "An increase in enrollment during the summer spiked spending, and there was a reduction in state funding at the time."
Judy Baxter, who was English Department Chair at Coventry High during Deasy's tenure, adds, "The district has always had financial problems. No more so than when Deasy was here. I haven't seen any taxpayer uprisings since Deasy left."
But Deasy’s departure did have a short-term impact on district funding. In February 2002, less than a year after he headed for Santa Monica, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation effectively froze its $3 million grant to create smaller learning environments for students.
"We put the grant on hold because of the uncertainty of the leadership changes, both at the district level and the high school level," Carol Rava, a Gates spokeswoman told the Providence Journal.
Funding only resumed in November 2002 when DiPietro finally took over the reins as superintendent.
The extent of the school district's financial troubles were fully realized in May 2002, when the Town Council assumed control of the School Department's finances for four months.
State law allows local governments to take over the finances of school departments operating under a deficit, and in the Coventry district there was a "concern about an anticipated $1 million deficit due to overspending and, some claimed, mismanagement," according to a recent article in the Providence Journal.
Deasy’s departure had a trickle down effect, spurring resignations and effectively forcing the board to turn to the Town Council for help.
“When John left, the assistant superintendent left, the high school principal left, when all this is happening, we’re in no man’s land,” said Butler, who headed the School Committee.
“At the district offices, there was only the financial officer, the secretary and the building superintendent,” Butler said. “I went to the town council and told them to control it. If John was here, that would never have happened.”
The district's financial troubles in 2002 were exacerbated by the department having to cope with a budget that was $2.6 million lower than it had requested, according to the Providence Journal.
The district has since managed to rectify its fiscal woes, and this February, Anthony Ferrucci, the department's financial director, proclaimed, "The Coventry School District will probably be able to end this fiscal year with a balanced budget.
"Given all the ink about other towns with budget crises, I think we're in pretty good shape,” he told the Providence Journal. “We weathered the storm two years ago."
Deasy’s tenure in Santa Monica hasn’t been easy. The district is weathering a financial storm of its own due to an historic State budget deficit. But it hasn’t dampened Deasy’s enthusiasm for reform and innovation, district officials said.
“I don’t see how Deasy’s innovations have negatively impacted financial spending in the district,” said Ken Bailey, assistant superintendent for finance and business services. “The (downward economic) trend was already in place prior to Deasy getting here.
“In comparison to other districts, our overhead costs are at the high end,” Bailey said. “We may have to make reductions next year, but the district’s finances are stable and we have been able to balance the operating budget after deficit spending for the last two years.”
School Board President Jose Escarce agrees. “I think John Deasy has reinvigorated and enhanced the district’s commitment to increasing academic achievement all the while being fiscally responsible.
“John Deasy is peerless and fearless,” Escarce said. “He is one of the top percentage of superintendents in terms of his initiative and vision.”
Last fall, Deasy signed a new three year contract as superintendent of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District. Escarce is aware this is probably not Deasy’s last stop, but he is hopeful he will serve until his contract is up.
“When anyone signs on, there is no guarantee they will stay on,” Escarce said. “There must be a mutual fit, and here the fit is.”
But some Coventry officials wonder how long it will take Deasy to outgrow his Santa Monica role and move on.“The question to ask is whether he would do so again?" Spears said, referring to Deasy's decision to leave Coventry after signing a new contract.
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