Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Anchorage School Superintendent Carol Comeau Announces Decision To Retire; Transparency And Competency The Hallmarks Of Her Administration

Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau caught the community off guard when she suddenly announced her intent to retire from the position effective the end of the 2011-12 school year. Comeau, who earned a base salary of $176,000 last year, has served in the position since 2000; it marks the end of a 38-year career with ASD which began as a noon-duty attendant and teacher aide overseeing recess, subsequently becoming a elementary school teacher, principal and central office administrator. According to the Anchorage Daily News, Comeau still enjoys the job, but wants to spend more time with her extended family, particularly her grandchildren. She hopes the district will perform a national search for her replacement. Most recently, Comeau has been contending with criticism over Everyday Math.

When Carol Comeau assumed the position in 2000, the community was ready for a change. Her predecessor, Bob Christal, was a divisive, polarizing, and ineffective figure whose term was marked by labor unrest. Comeau began to calm things down and soon developed a reputation for competency and transparency. In fact, ASD went out of their way to engage the public during her administration as community members were repeatedly invited to participate in policy formulation through the Capital Resources Advisory Committee and the Controversial Issues Review Committee, as well as periodic budget review teams. Even the opinions of community members who had no kids enrolled in the district were solicited, which is important because their property tax dollars are also used to help fund public education. Furthermore, through her diplomacy and competency, Comeau earned the confidence of the school board to such an extent that the board was sometimes criticized for being a "rubber stamp" of the superintendent; this reputation was clearly exaggerated.

Administration: During the Comeau regime, ASD administration grew top-heavy and the proportion of the budget devoted to personnel rose steadily; personnel costs accounted for 89 percent of the district's previous budget. Some of that increase was beyond Comeau's control; teacher health insurance have increased by nearly 60 percent in less than three years as the insurance industry does all it can to inflate a bubble similar to the dot-com bubble, the housing bubble, and the college bubble. In addition, a seemingly endless array of federal mandates from Washington, along with meticulous compliance documentation requirements, necessitated the hire of additional administrators to service these requirements. Generating additional criticism was the fact that the ASD budget continued to rise steadily despite the fact that the total number of students remained relatively constant, but this criticism doesn't account for inflation and additional outside mandates.

Integrity: Carol Comeau boosted the integrity of the school district by promptly severing employees who were caught up in the criminal justice system; they weren't protected the way APD (or more specifically, APDEA) initially protected Anthony Rollins. In January 2008, two weeks after an assistant principal, Mario Toro, was busted for possession of cocaine, the district fired him even before he had been formally arraigned. On the other hand, Comeau was initially slow to react to an upsurge of student bullying, which triggered litigation by local attorney Dennis Maloney. Even today, Maloney is not completely satisfied with the district's anti-bullying efforts. The district's suspension policy has also been criticized for putting both the perpetrator and the victim in a physical dispute on the same level; oftentimes, both perpetrator and victim are suspended until district officials can investigate an incident to determine fault.

Political Correctness: While a certain amount of "political correctness" is unavoidable in the supreintendent's position, Carol Comeau strived to hold it to a minimum. Two instances of political correctness come to mind, though. In May 2006, in response to federal Title IX compliance forced upon the district, the district chose to start a girl's flag football team to the tune of $150,000, even though there was only limited demand for such an alternative. And in August 2007, in response to a complaint by a Jewish student, the school board voted to add the Jewish holy days of Passover, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to the list of official district-recognized holidays, as well as the Muslim holy days of Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha. This could open the floodgates for other marginal holidays to be added in the future. In addition, the district directed that no after-school activities be scheduled to conflict with those days, thus increasing the difficulty of scheduling such activities.

Bond Success: During Comeau's regime, in the elections from 2001 through 2011, school bond passage rate was 48 percent; out of 21 bonds floated, only 10 passed (visit the Muni.org site and click on the various elections to verify). However, had it not been for Comeau's power of persuasion, combined with state debt reimbursement, the passage rate would have been much lower. Carol Comeau and her staff did an excellent job of presenting the bonds to the public, and even made sure we were also aware of how they would be offset by the retirement of previous bonds. Bonds which passed were generally modest in cost and directly related to nuts and bolts issues; bonds which failed were either whoppers in excess of $100 million or which related more to ruffles and flourishes like the Service High theater or the proposed new administration building.

The departure of Carol Comeau will be a tangible loss to the community. When all is said and done, I'd give her a letter grade of B+.

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