It was half past two on a school night, and the Hayward Board of Education was still in session. The crowd had been reduced from hundreds to a few dozen people, some of them dozing in the back row, the more resolute ones up in the front row still looking steely. Even the board members appeared a bit glassy-eyed.
The house was packed when the meeting started, but that was seven hours ago. Parents and teachers had filled the chambers and overflowed into a separate room where they watched the proceedings via video. Guards turned away stragglers. Inside, educators waving red signs that read “Listen 2 Teachers” excoriated the management practices of Dr. Joan Kowal, the district’s superintendent. Dozens of parents called for her resignation. When the speeches grew so heated that board president Larry Booth felt compelled to admonish the crowd, “This is not a union rally,” a mass of people rose to their feet to shout him down.
School board meetings in Hayward are like that these days.
In some ways, all unhappy school districts are the same. Like most of its Bay Area peers, the 25,000-student Hayward Unified School District has its troubles: Money is tight, standardized test scores are low, and the state is pushing for improvement. This autumn, the teachers union and the administration declared an impasse during contract negotiations. Yet until recently, Hayward was an oasis of relative tranquility. It was infamous neither for its student failure rate, as Oakland was; nor its financial scandals, as Emeryville was; nor its racial achievement gap, as Berkeley was. Hayward was so placid that two incumbents in last November’s school board race went entirely unchallenged.
But this fall has been different, and the now-rancorous board meetings are only the tip of the iceberg. The past few months have left the district’s morale in a shambles as its finances have very publicly been called into question. A senior district official, who was put on leave after criticizing the superintendent’s management practices, unleashed a barn burner of a press release saying that the district fits most of the criteria for a state financial takeover. Hundreds of parents, students, and teachers have jammed school board meetings, loudly demanding Kowal’s ouster. District teachers expressed no confidence in her by a 93 percent majority vote, and the office and technical employees union quickly followed suit. Even the Hayward Chamber of Commerce urged the district to submit its bookkeeping to an independent audit. There have been allegations of misspending, overspending, cronyism, retribution, and secret agendas. By the time the year is out, the district could be under the lens of no fewer than three separate audits, with its teacher turnover rate higher than ever, and its rapport with parents and the community shattered.
This storm swirls around Joan Kowal, who arrived in March 2001 from Palm Beach County, Florida. Public school superintendents such as Kowal are the fruit flies of the public education world — often most notable for their remarkably short lifespans. It’s not unusual for a top executive to take the heat when a district comes upon tough times, but in Hayward — where the community has ardently questioned the superintendent’s management style and chronicled her flaws all the way back to her employment in another state — Kowal’s problems run deeper than that.
Kowal, a nationally known career administrator, appealed to the five-member Hayward school board as someone who could bring the district’s flagging test scores up to snuff. In many ways, she was an ideal candidate. She hailed from a much larger district that was nevertheless similar to Hayward: urban, racially and economically diverse, and home to a large Spanish-speaking student population. She had a reputation for being hardworking and authoritative, and for firmly believing that all students can master the coursework required by government standards. Most of all, she believed in using tests to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses, so that teachers could tailor their lessons to students’ needs well before year-end exams rolled around.
In 2001 the federal government passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which required states to specify what skills students must master at each grade level, and then to demonstrate their progress via testing. California already had adopted such standards, but Hayward has been slower than other local districts in measuring how well it conforms to them. Performance on such exams is just as significant for the district as it is for the students; they don’t call it “high-stakes testing” for nothing. California tracks each district and hands out financial rewards to schools and teachers whose students improve by a specified amount. During the 2001-2002 school year, only 22 percent of Hayward’s schools improved sufficiently, down from 41 percent during 1999-2000. But even before this decline, Hayward’s board had decreed that the district’s curriculum should be aligned with state standards and students tested to measure how they performed against them. When Kowal was hired, this directive became her marching orders.
Those who need proof of Hayward Unified’s seriousness about measurably boosting student progress need look no further than its logo: children standing beneath a jagged line graph with the arrow climbing resolutely upward. School board member Myrna Truehill, who sent eight of her own children through Hayward schools, said she and her colleagues wanted to hire someone “who wasn’t afraid to make the changes needed in order for students to be successful.” Board President Booth says they also wanted someone who knew how to interpret the jumble of statistics spit out by most standardized tests. “There’s a great deal that needs to be addressed in Hayward — including our test scores, which are not the highest,” he says.
Kowal is a woman with cropped blonde hair, a no-nonsense attitude, and a clear, forceful speaking manner. She recalls being told during a job interview that Hayward was not “a district of thirty-seven schools,” but rather “thirty-seven school districts.” The educator knew she was being hired to unify the curriculum standards across the district. She was chosen, she believes, because she had experience in standards assessment and could “weather the storm” of public opinion that such changes inevitably would provoke. “They know that kids can do better and that the community deserves better,” Kowal says of the board.
Her administration quickly scored some victories. Hayward’s special education program, previously on the verge of state takeover because of financial problems, is now in compliance with state and federal regulations. Textbooks throughout the district have been standardized, so that students who move between schools do not fall behind. Kowal has received accolades from the NAACP, whose members say her emphasis on standards will benefit minority students not always expected to perform as well as their white counterparts. Kowal instituted “community conversations” with parents, and made the rounds at schools to explain to teachers how the data from tests could be used to direct instruction toward students’ weak points. In many ways, it looked like a strong start for the new schools chief.
No one will dispute that being a public school superintendent is a difficult job. Although the average tenure of a US superintendent is six years, that shrinks to only two and a half in urban districts, according to the American Association of School Administrators. Superintendents tend to keep moving, either seeking greener pastures or fleeing from controversy. “That’s not unusual at all in the education world,” says Booth.
In the East Bay, it’s also easy to correlate a school chief’s tenure with the affluence of their district. Oakland’s current superintendent, Dennis Chaconas, has been in office for about two and a half years, and Carole Quan before him lasted only four. Berkeley and Emeryville both gained new leadership last year — Emeryville in the form of a state administrator — and their previous full-time superintendents each lasted seven years. By contrast, Walnut Creek’s superintendent has been in office for nine years and his predecessor was there for thirteen. Piedmont’s has been there since 1987.
The job can only get more difficult in a district in the midst of making a sea change in its approach to the controversial matter of standardized testing, as Hayward is. “Part of being a superintendent is that you’re one individual at the top of the organization and oftentimes it’s easier to put a face on the issue so you can tag your frustration or the responsibility on one person,” observes Hayward Unified spokeswoman Kim Hammond. “It’s easier to say ‘This is one person’s fault that our scores are lower, or that morale is low.’ But truly it has to be a shared responsibility of everyone.” Or, as the superintendent herself puts it, “This is not Joan Kowal’s job to improve student achievement. It is all of our responsibility. And it takes time. … So far I haven’t read a book that said it’s really easy, that I’m making it harder than it needs to be. It’s a 24/7 job that you can never really let up on.”
It’s hard to say where and when the tide began to turn, but three key events are usually mentioned in complaints about Kowal’s administration. The superintendent got off on the wrong foot by bringing in seven high-ranking and well-paid administrators from Florida, while demoting, transferring, or failing to retain several long-term local staff members. Then her administration authorized a probe into the management of choir funds at Mt. Eden High School, a move widely seen as a search for a reason to fire Principal John Davini, a beloved 25-year veteran of the district. Finally, without discussing the matter with the teachers’ union, Kowal introduced StandardsMaster, a test to begiven to third- through tenth-grade students three times a year to assess math and reading skills. Teachers were only notified one week before they were expected to administer the test, and refused en masse to do so, saying that StandardsMaster was unnecessary, unproven, and would only further discourage students already demoralized by state-mandated standardized tests.
Together, these three incidents were interpreted as the machinations of an outsider clear-cutting the local management infrastructure, making changes without the input of a union accustomed to being involved, and taking the district in a test-oriented direction opposed by many.
Some parents and employees began to wonder about the cost of these new hires and initiatives, and rumors began to fly. Some of the more outrageous ones — that the district had bought Kowal a house, or that her transplanted Florida press secretary was really her niece — were easily rebutted. But others, many of which revolved around the common theme of administrative overspending, persisted. For example, parents claimed that the district spent $77,000 on cell phones last year, and $42,000 on catering between June and October of this year. Critics complained about an administrative retreat to Napa that allegedly cost $80,000. The teachers union claimed that administrative salaries increased by roughly $1.2 million in the last fiscal year, with Kowal’s salary set at $175,000 a year, the highest the district has ever paid. Worse, parents and teachers said, the district lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money because Kowal’s office neglected to turn in the necessary paperwork. All of this happened during a time of scarce resources, while Hayward’s teachers were asking parents to photocopy class materials at their own offices, and to help supply essentials such as toilet paper. Outraged parents saw this as proof that the district’s adults were greedily consuming tax dollars better spent in the classroom.
But what really sparked parent outrage was that no matter how hard one tried to sort fact from fiction, no one at the district was ever able to set the record straight. This June, as the rumors abounded, former school board candidate and parent Holly Souza took matters into her own hands. Souza and others formed a group called Parents United and took their concerns about rumored spending directly to the school board. They got no response. “It kind of raised more questions,” she says. “Why can we not dispel these rumors? Why are we not coming forth with information?”
Souza then took a more formal approach. She filed a California Public Records Act request, signed by more than one hundred people, asking the district to provide information about a dozen different concerns, including expenditures for travel, consultants, and cell phones. Although the district responded promptly, most of Souza’s questions were answered either with a one-word response or by directing her to obtain public records on her own. Souza then spent a frustrating afternoon at the district office fruitlessly looking for the papers. Again, she requested answers to her questions, and again, the response did not satisfy her. In September she received a memo from spokeswoman Hammond detailing each document’s location and how much it would cost to photocopy them all. “They knew exactly what we were asking, but now they were playing a game,” Souza says.
The district’s refusal or inability to rebut these rumors has helped inflame much of the public’s dissatisfaction with Kowal. Despite her “community conversations,” she is widely perceived not only as having something to hide, but as having a spin machine working overtime to hide it. In Hayward, as at her previous post in Florida, Kowal often has been criticized for being highly guarded when answering questions. The superintendent’s responses to the many criticisms about her performance and past have generally been oblique, and as she discussed some of these issues in a recent interview, her comments rarely strayed from those contained in a prewritten outline of talking points. Questions addressed to Kowal were often referred to one of three other administrators seated at the interview table with her: Deputy Superintendent Tim McClary, spokeswoman Hammond, or Associate Superintendent Sunday-Joseph Otengho.
When Kowal and her staff are publicly asked questions during board meetings, the result tends to be uncomfortable, one-sided confrontations in which the questioners go away unsatisfied. Because the district interprets state law so strictly as to prohibit the board or staff members from answering questions about topics not on the agenda, Kowal and the board basically have to sit there and listen, even when the comments are aggressive or excessively personal. “She is unable to say, ‘I’m sorry, but that’s not true,’ or ‘I’m sorry, but that report you’re holding is completely out of context,'” Hammond says. But even here, the district’s silence is largely a matter of choice. Terry Francke, general counsel of the California First Amendment Coalition, says members of legislative bodies are indeed able to respond publicly to issues raised by citizens as long as they do not take action on matters not on the agenda.
When Souza and her peers in Parents United gave up on getting a straight answer from Hayward Unified, they tried yet another tack, using online newspaper archives to learn more about Kowal’s Florida track record. They soon learned that she had not left under happy conditions. Kowal had an embattled relationship with the Palm Beach County school board, which ultimately bought out her contract to the tune of about $184,000.
As in Hayward, there were inquiries into Kowal’s spending priorities from early on during her Palm Beach tenure. She was seen as extravagant almost from day one; once she made an ill-fated request that the district buy her a van, she was dubbed the “minivan lady.” Critics also questioned the amount she spent on consultants, travel outside the district, and her national aspirations, as Kowal twice made failed bids for the presidency of the American Association of School Administrators, on whose eight-member executive committee she currently sits. “She preferred to be a politician, going out and making friends rather than staying home and getting the job done,” remembers Tom Lynch, Palm Beach County’s school board chair.
Also as in Hayward, Kowal installed an out-of-town regime, in this case administrators brought over from her previous superintendency in Volusia County, Florida. Board members took umbrage at her management style; she was called a “technocrat” and a “top-down” manager who tried to freeze out those who contradicted her. “If she didn’t agree with the way things were going, you were ostracized,” says Lynch, who recalls that Kowal usually seemed to travel with a group of advisers. “It was known as the queen and her entourage,” he says. “Everywhere she went, she had about eight or ten staff people together.”
The board ultimately broke with Kowal after the state and federal government asked in 1999 why the district had failed to comply with demands to reform its special education program. State and federal officials had identified serious problems two years earlier, but Kowal hadn’t fixed the problems or communicated their severity to the board. Angry that they had been kept in the dark, board members hired an independent consultant to evaluate the program.
Educational consultant David Rostetter’s report was a scorcher, concluding that the district had violated the civil rights of its students, leaving itself vulnerable to fines, loss of funding, and civil suits. It described uncertified and untrained teachers, a lack of counseling services, evidence of unearned diplomas being issued, and classes in which half the students didn’t show up. Although these problems had persisted since the district’s first warning, enrollment in the program was allowed to quadruple in one year alone. A separate financial audit found that payroll and enrollment records were so poor that there was no way of determining if the schools were correctly staffed or enrolled.
After the report came out, the relationship between Kowal and the board sank to a bitter new low. In retrospect, the report’s author now recalls, much of this was avoidable. “She didn’t need to be in so much trouble over it — all she had to do was agree to fix the problem,” Rostetter says. “Instead she turned it into a war.”
As Kowal’s supporters attempted to discredit the study, the board and the press began beating the drums for her ouster. “The findings on alternative education were just the final straw,” remembers Jody Gleason, who served on the Palm Beach County school board for ten years and now heads the county’s education commission. “This was a very open board that wants to be informed, and she only shared information she wanted us to have.”
While the details of the alternative schools scandal were provocative enough, Hayward parents also dug up another incident from Kowal’s past that reverberated even more strongly with them. In 1997, Kowal was accused of forcing the early retirement of a well-liked high school principal named Art Johnson, after a teacher at his school was found to be using violent methods to discipline suspended students. His departure inspired so much outrage that 1,200 community members joined in the state’s first-ever class-action criminal complaint, alleging that Kowal had violated Florida law by planning Johnson’s removal in secret. Although the complaint was dismissed, Johnson’s popularity was so strong that he was elected to the school board even as he sued it over his removal. After the consultant’s report unleashed the outrage of the community, Johnson was one of the members who voted to send Kowal packing. In a role reversal worthy of a Greek tragedy, he ultimately succeeded her as superintendent.
While Kowal’s office has hinted that there was more to the Florida scandal than the official reports suggest, if she knows any mitigating details she’s keeping them under wraps. Instead, her office would prefer to change the focus of the debate. “She feels like it’s time to shift the discussion from all the things that are wrong or not working to what we can all do to take responsibility to make it better,” says Hammond.
But Kowal’s Florida track record and the similarity of the Johnson case to what some Hayward parents worry is in store for the principal of Mt. Eden High were enough to recharge the rumor mill. In addition to Parents United, other groups, most notably one called the Hayward Education Community Alliance, began agitating for Kowal’s removal and an investigation into the district’s spending. The alliance is led by parent Jeff Cook, whose wife — perhaps not coincidentally — is the bookkeeper for the choir funds being investigated. As Hayward parents grew alarmed by what they’d discovered about Kowal, the relationship between the superintendent and local teachers was fraying, too. Teachers complained that Kowal had eroded the district’s institutional memory by putting so many Floridian friends in key administrative positions, even as her imperious management style also left them out of the loop. “I didn’t feel she took the time to get to know the teachers or get to know the particular schools and the challenges that the students and teachers face,” says Judy Okolie, a social studies and multimedia teacher at Tennyson High School. “She came in with this perception that she was going to sort of clean up shop, and that the method of doing so was through this kind of standards-based assessment.”
A record 152 instructors have resigned from the district in the past year, according to the Hayward Education Association. The union also claims that the district has never been so administratively top-heavy, and that Kowal has poured money better spent on students into projects such as refurbishing the district office. “We feel that her priorities are herself first and the students and teachers second and third,” charges union president Kathy Crummey. “To nickel-and-dime the classroom is a shame.”
For teachers, the prime example of Kowal’s disregard was the implementation of the StandardsMaster tests without union input. This fall, after the teachers refused to administer the test, high school students also got in on the action, with 175 signing a petition saying they wouldn’t sit for the test anyway. Both groups complained that students already are overtested. More exams will only eat up time that could be used for teaching, they argued, and another slew of low scores would only further frustrate students. Kowal, however, points out that the new test merely replaces outmoded ones. She defends StandardsMaster as a valuable tool that will help teachers know where their students need extra help before it is time for the state’s year-end exams. “The important part is not the numbers, it’s what we do with the numbers,” she says.
But Kowal and her peers also note that the teachers’ criticisms accompany a period of heated contract negotiations. Teachers are asking for a 5.26 percent wage increase; the district countered with an offer of 1.35 percent. In October, the two sides declared an impasse, and shortly thereafter came the vote of no confidence. The resolution complained about Kowal’s “self-serving” financial decisions and poor relations with the community. “Morale throughout the district is at an all-time low due to Superintendent Joan Kowal’s management style,” the union proclaimed.
Kowal and her administration dismiss the vote as a ploy meant to give the union an edge at the bargaining table. “This is a standard sort of activity for teachers unions at this point in negotiations,” Hammond says. But union president Crummey says the vote is extremely significant because it is the first time Hayward teachers have ever expressed no confidence in their superintendent. The two sides are currently negotiating through a mediator.The initial worries of parents and teachers were rooted in anecdotes, bad feelings, and old newspaper clippings. Enter Arthur Kratka, a former Palm Beach administrator who moved to Hayward to serve as the district’s executive director of business support, overseeing its payroll, purchasing, and budget. In September, Kratka gave Kowal’s critics something more substantial to chew on.
When the district authorized an investigation into the funds at Mt. Eden, the inquiry’s publicly stated goal was to see if choir club and choir booster club funds were inappropriately commingled or overdrawn. Kratka, believing that the audit’s real purpose was to set up Mt. Eden Principal John Davini for dismissal, directed colleague Carol Otengho, another Florida transplant, to assist Davini with financial matters, rather than investigate them. To his surprise, Otengho allegedly responded by saying that she reported directly to Kowal, not to him. Later that day, Kratka also faced off with Otengho’s husband, Associate Superintendent Sunday-Joseph Otengho. Kratka claimed that Sunday-Joseph Otengho was inappropriately requesting payroll and attendance information about yet another administrator, which he interpreted as one more attempt to dig up dirt on a longtime district employee. A few hours after his exchanges with the Otenghos, Kratka was placed on administrative leave and escorted from the building.
Within days, Kratka turned the district on its ear. First, he sent out a scathing press release describing the circumstances of his departure. “I can no longer sit back quietly, be party to, and watch as long-term, highly dedicated employees are harassed and belittled,” he wrote. “For months, staff has been intent on finding inappropriate activities and setting traps rather than helping to resolve issues as I have directed them to.” His letter caused a sensation, and seemed to confirm suspicions that Kowal was working through a “hit list” of long-term administrators.
A few days later, Kratka detonated his real powder keg, a second letter stating that the district was in such poor financial health that it should immediately surrender control of its fiscal and business operations to the Alameda County Office of Education. As proof, he claimed that the district met eight of the state’s eleven criteria for government intervention, including a dip below required budget reserves, inadequate budget monitoring, staff unrest, and administrative burnout.
Kratka, who has retained an attorney, declines to elaborate upon many of the details of the problems he alleges exist. Nor will the district discuss Kratka’s employment status, calling it a personnel matter. But Kowal insists that the district is not financially troubled. “I think that Mr. McClary and his staff, which would include Mr. Kratka, would be telling me if there was fiscal crisis,” she says. Her logic is hard to follow, given that Kratka — whose job it was to oversee such things — has emphatically proclaimed that there is a crisis.
Deputy Superintendent McClary calls Kratka’s allegations “minimal and not very specific.” He points out that the district already undergoes an annual outside audit, which is scrutinized by county and state officials, who have yet to spot a major accounting flaw. Nevertheless, his office is reluctant to provide many specifics of its own to debunk the claims made by Kratka or the district’s other critics. He contests union claims that administrative salaries have increased by $1.2 million this year, but he declines to release any figures that prove otherwise. Hammond has previously stated that the district has created six new jobs worth a total of $720,000, although the addition of five of these positions was state-mandated.
It has been well documented that the district lost funding last March from the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative when a three-year grant was reduced from $325,000 to $50,000. Stern correspondence sent last spring by the collaborative clearly states that the money was not provided because the district repeatedly failed to show how it would use the funds, although Kowal claimed this occurred because the funding source was “restructuring” the grant.
McClary acknowledges that at least one of the rumors is true: The district did spend $77,000 on cell phone bills last year, which he defends as vital to the communications and security needs of the district. Meanwhile, the district is unwilling to say how much it spent on catering or the Napa retreat, and has not answered public questions about how much it has cost to investigate Mt. Eden’s choir funds.
Alameda County Education Superintendent Sheila Jordan has taken Kratka’s claims seriously, asking the state to begin a preliminary investigation to see if a full audit is necessary. “Given the high level of the complaint that was issued by Mr. Kratka, and his internal status, I felt it was prudent to move ahead,” Jordan says. However, she stresses that although the county’s own overview of Hayward’s finances raised some questions, no major problems have been highlighted so far. At the very least, she says, an audit should quiet the allegations. “Unfortunately there’s a lot of divisive stuff going on there,” she says. “We’re hoping this will be a way to give the community more access to the questions they’re asking.”
As the community’s questions snowballed following Kratka’s letter, critics began turning their attention to the board that hired Kowal. An October 9 board meeting drew hundreds of people to City Hall. Picketers showed up carrying signs reading “Art Kratka Is Our Hero” and carried tombstones with the names of dismissed administrators written on them. One teenage boy dressed as Kowal with a black robe and scythe. The crowd grew so huge that, after the inner meeting rooms filled up, about two hundred more people parked themselves outside the building, chanting “Kowal has to go.”
Even as the district discouraged such crowds from again gathering, the pressure didn’t wane. One meeting was moved to a much smaller venue that prohibited standing and had no television access. Viewing this as an attempt to shut them out, parents and teachers boycotted the event, sending Cook as their sole emissary to read a letter of protest. The most recent meeting, although back at City Hall, featured so many official presentations that the public-comment period didn’t begin until late in the evening, when few parents are free to attend meetings. It was well past midnight when the board finally made its way to agenda item G3: Should it hire an independent auditor to examine the school district’s finances, in addition to the audit already ordered by the county?
Earlier that evening, in a last-ditch attempt to sway the board, parents had circulated copies of the two critical Florida reports. They read the harshest passages aloud for the benefit of those in the audience or watching at home on TV. They made frequent reference to the Mt. Eden probe, saying the school district needed to investigate its own finances with the same vigor it has applied to scrutinizing high school choir raffles and candy sales. “It appears to many of us parents that the board has now served as Kowal’s puppet or surrogate rather than performing its proper role as her employer and boss,” charged Hayward resident Irene Howald. “This board has treated the parents and community with utter disdain.”
Throughout it all, the board has appeared unflinching in its support of Kowal, who sat on the same dais silently taking notes as parents and teachers raged. In recent weeks, parents and teachers have homed in on this silence, accusing the board of being loath to reexamine its own hiring decision. “We’ve never heard a criticism of the superintendent by the board, not even a probing question or a challenge,” says Cook. “It’s like they’re locked at the hip.” Critics say the board didn’t vet Kowal’s background thoroughly enough, an accusation lent credence by her two toughest Palm Beach critics, Lynch and Gleason, who say they were not contacted by anyone from Hayward prior to Kowal’s hiring. “Not to call another district where somebody else has come from is ludicrous,” says Lynch.
Three of the five Hayward board members contacted for this story did not return phone calls. However, Booth and Truehill both insist that they performed ample due diligence when hiring Kowal — that they knew of the critical Florida reports, and that Kowal adequately answered all their questions. “There was absolutely nothing hidden or held back by Dr. Kowal,” says Booth. Like Kowal herself, these board members chalk up the tension in the district to contract negotiations and the rabble-rousing efforts of a few overzealous parents. “People have dug up the past and they are bringing those rumors forward and looking at our budget and spending in the hopes of making those rumors true,” Truehill says.
Supporters of Kowal also say that the groups represented by Souza and Cook can’t possibly reflect the accurate sentiments of a school district that serves the parents of 25,000 students. The district calls attention to the emerging middle ground represented by parent Kevin McHugh, the PTA president at Harder Elementary School. He says he’s turned off by the stridency of some parents’ accusations, and is circulating a pledge asking parents to suggest two solutions every time they raise a criticism. McHugh believes Kowal’s initiatives haven’t been given enough time to prove their value. Standards-based assessment is now the law, he notes, and some parents would prefer to see the district just get on with it. “I’m afraid that if the board keeps hearing all negative things they’ll feel it’s their responsibility to only answer to that one section of the crowd,” he says. “The board has given Dr. Kowal a mandate and she’s following it; they said ‘We need change’ and she’s doing it. Elected people will always listen to the squeaky wheel, and I want to see if we can get some parents together to say ‘Stay the course.'”
Board members such as Truehill are inclined to do just that. They defend Kowal’s moves towards standardization and student assessment as necessary actions that any Hayward superintendent would be forced to take. “As much as we don’t like having to teach to test scores, that’s what the state and the federal government are asking us to do,” Truehill says. Booth emphasizes that the policy guiding the district towards more testing was adopted “well before we ever heard the name ‘Dr. Kowal.'”
But on that late night three weeks ago as the board considered asking an outsider to look at its books, there was hardly a ringing endorsement of Kowal’s leadership. The tired board conducted its discussion at a mumble, finally agreeing that two members would investigate firms that could take the job and report back at the next meeting. There wasn’t even a motion — the item passed by consensus — and Kowal, sitting just a few feet away, hardly moved a muscle. It was a whimper and not a bang, hardly a satisfying end to an incredibly long evening.
Joan Kowal was criticized most sharply in her home state for the exact opposite of what she has been criticized for in Hayward. In Florida, where her main detractor was the school board, she earned mostly good marks from teachers. Here, the board is her chief defender and the teachers and parents are aligned against her. In Florida, Kowal was hired as a “healer” meant to smooth over rifts between the previous superintendent and parents and teachers. Here, she was hired to shake things up in a district the board thought was too acquiescent about student failure. In Florida, special education was her Waterloo. Here, it was the first thing she fixed.
But in the end, management style and personality weave Kowal’s Palm Beach and Hayward experiences together. While even her fiercest detractors describe her as intelligent, driven, and often charming, people have bristled under her leadership in Florida and California alike. Subordinates in both states have resented the way she surrounds herself with administrators brought in from her last job, often refuses to answer direct questions about touchy subjects, and makes decisions without consulting the rank and file. People complain about Kowal ostracizing dissenters and playing her cards so close to her chest that her co-workers are kept in the dark about important school business.
It’s the politics of personality, not the politics of education, but when it comes to the emotionally charged subject of children’s welfare, personalities matter. It is no easy trick to translate abstract policies and government goals into real-world solutions. Kids don’t behave in accordance with any algorithm, and parents and teachers hate watching children they care about struggle.
Kowal’s board supporters say she and the community still need time to adjust to one another. “She may not have a style that we’re used to here in Hayward,” Truehill concedes. “She has her direction and she goes for it. There is no monkey business.” But those who previously have worked with the superintendent say the similarities between what sparked conflict in Florida and Hayward suggest that Kowal is unlikely to change. “She just didn’t tend to bring out the best in people,” says Gleason. “She’s a very bright lady who seemed to have a lot to offer, but she wasn’t able to build consensus among diverse groups.”
The people pushing for Kowal’s resignation say that she now has alienated too many factions to be an effective leader. “Even if this superintendent has some of the finest qualifications in the world on paper — the doctorates and recommendations and great skills and knowledge of testing and some good ideas — it simply cannot compensate for the wholesale lack of trust and support that’s in the community,” Cook says. “If you don’t have the trust of your most active and involved parents and teachers and businesspeople and the community, ultimately the best programs in the world are doomed to failure.”
Although the Hayward board has made no sign of considering such a move, ousting Kowal wouldn’t be cheap. In addition to whatever money the district may end up spending on extra audits or investigations, her contract calls for a buyout worth $262,500 if she is terminated without cause. It’s strange that a community so concerned about spending outside the classroom may end up sinking even more administrative money into audits and buyout packages.
But for all of the digging people have done into Kowal’s history, there’s little to suggest that they’ve learned enough from it to keep it from repeating. After the special education report was released in Florida, Kowal, the Palm Beach board, and just about everybody else involved in the resulting shakeout were strongly criticized for turning the needs of the district’s most troubled children into a spectacle of politicking, buck-passing, and name-calling that served only the interests of adults. After all, the people most affected by Hayward’s inner turmoil aren’t even allowed to stay up late enough to make it through a whole school board meeting.