By: Jim McCaffrey
Philadelphia - Tom Brady, the new interim CEO of the Philadelphia School District, began his new job Monday doing what he was hired to do: make changes.
Brady was brought to Philadelphia as the chief operating officer in March. He was installed as interim chief executive officer soon after his predecessor decided to resign after public displays of no confidence from the School Reform Commission (SRC).
It was the kind of assignment Brady had been training for his whole professional life. His resume begins with a 20-year career in the Army. He retired with the rank of colonel.
His interest in education and public service led him to a civilian career in school administration.
Brady worked first in Fairfax, Va., one of the wealthiest school districts in the nation. He then moved to the Washington, D.C., School District, one of the country's poorest.
Along the way, he picked up a degree from the Broad Superintendent's Academy, a 10-month executive management program schooling business, nonprofit, military, government and education leaders in executive techniques of large urban school management.
Brady must have thought he was ready for anything when he was hired in Philadelphia. Whether he expected to be appointed CEO even on a temporary basis as soon as he was remains a matter of speculation.
The SRC keeps its decision making so secret and away from public view that it did not even mention to Gov. Ed Rendell or Mayor John Street that it was appointing Brady as CEO. Rendell and Street, angry that they had not been consulted about the choice, issued a joint press release calling Brady, whom neither had met, "unqualified."
Brady takes over the district two months before one of the most important school openings in a generation. The school district is carrying a $200 million deficit into the 2008 school year, and the state legislature is late deciding on a budget. So less than 60 days before school begins, the district does not know how much money the state will be sending to Philadelphia schools. Consequently, it has no way of knowing how many more jobs and programs it will have to cut before the beginning of school.
As this is occurring, the district is under intense pressure to continue school reform.
The federal No Child Left Behind legislation requires every school to have all children proficient in reading and math by 2014.
The Philadelphia School District, after five years of intense effort and vast improvement, can barely get 40 percent of its students reading and doing math at grade-level proficiency.
Worse, many schools are having trouble even demonstrating they are improving.
The district recently named 54 schools as chronic failures. The SRC has agreed to an intense recruiting effort to bring in outside companies and other educational partners to help turn around these failing schools.
At the same time, traditional infrastructure and partners are falling apart. Parents find themselves at odds with the SRC and with each other. The district's CEO, COO and CFO and other top administrators have left. The SRC must find permanent replacements for these key people in the near future while at the same time keeping academic reforms progressing.
Brady will also have to contend with rapidly decaying buildings that need billions of dollars of work, a $1.2 billion capital improvement program that needs oversight and contentious negotiations continuing over the acquisition of property for a new high school in West Philadelphia.
As one might expect of a military man, Brady told The Bulletin "the system needs discipline."
"Yes," he said, "I'm going to bring discipline to the system." That doesn't mean military-style "Yes, sir" and "No, sir," Brady said. It means setting agendas, defining goals and measuring achievement.
On his first day, he had it all carefully written out: "Goal 1: Establish fiscal policies and management discipline. Goal 2: Improve public trust and confidence. Goal 3: Ensure back-to-school readiness in September. Goal 4: Establish sound management practices and organizational discipline. Goal 5: Focus the system on the educational mission."
These goals Brady confidently insists will be accomplished in his first 90 days.
Last month, Chief Academic Officer Greg Thornton presented his plan to turn around the 54 worst performing schools in the district. Thornton has been very publicly recruited for superintendent jobs in Seattle and Baltimore, so whether he will stay to execute the turnaround plan remains another point of anxiety for the district.
"Dr. Thornton and I had a long conversation last week," Brady said, "and I did not [leave with the understanding] he plans to leave any time soon."
He added, "CEO, CAO, COO - these are very important in terms of leadership, but the plans were designed by the staff. It is a collective body of work. I want to get away from the focus ... on personal leadership. I want more organizational leadership."
Brady is insistent that an organization needs to get away from what he termed "messianic" leadership - a cult of personality - and move to organizational decisions based on staff input.
"If everything comes from the top down, [the organization] eventually becomes spotty, but the other way around, if you get everyone to buy in, you have achievement," he declared.
Though he must carry the word "interim" as part of his title, Brady promises not to let it affect his job performance.
"The SRC made me responsible," he said. "I will be until they say I'm not. The decisions I make are short-term, long-term and mid-term."
He believes his job is to provide stability and long-term leadership. He does not believe the statements by the governor and the mayor were personal.
"I put the personal stuff behind me," he said. "It was not personal. There are some political agendas ... but it's my job to focus on kids and district achievement."
The real toughness of the man comes, when after all this, he is asked if he plans to be a candidate in the search for a permanent CEO.
His answer is an unqualified and emphatic "yes."