Hernando School Superintendent Wayne Alexander said in a recent interview that he is not a magician. He shortchanged himself. Alexander's comments came while discussing the school district's finances. After two years of budget cuts, he warned, the next step would have to include personnel reductions.
That was in March and money remains a big part of the illusion now involving the Hernando School Board, the majority of which gave Alexander passing marks on a performance evaluation last week. Two weeks earlier the majority reiterated strong support for the superintendent despite his ongoing job search in New England, a union proclamation that it had lost faith in Alexander's leadership, and a push to fire him from board members Pat Fagan and James C. Yant.
Still, board members Diane Bonfield, John Sweeney and Sandra Nicholson remain loyal to Alexander. Until they consider his recommendations for dealing with the greatest challenge facing the district — educating Hernando's school children amid dwindling resources. Then, the majority crumbles, killing budget-balancing plans without offering sound alternatives.
Consider: The same day the majority declined to fire Alexander, Bonfield, Sweeney and Nicholson joined Yant and Fagan in reversing a cost-cutting plan that would eliminate 200 teaching jobs. Then, five days ago, after the majority said it was satisfied with Alexander's performance, the board voted 4-1, declining to follow the superintendent's suggestion to save $400,000 by merging the facilities and maintenance departments. Only Nicholson stood by Alexander's recommendation. At least she was consistent on that day.
It is an odd paradox. The board majority wants Alexander to stay on the job, yet members don't have the confidence in his budgeting abilities. Why then do they want him to lead the district at a time fiscal matters top all others? Alexander, meanwhile, gets to stay at a job when most of his bosses aren't in agreement with his advice on the most pressing issue confronting the district — identifying up to $16 million in budget cuts.
It is a recipe for stagnation and finger-in-the-wind decision-making. The issue no longer is the superintendent's performance; it is about how the board majority does its job — poorly. They will back Alexander, but not his work on the most crucial issue.
Bonfield, the chairman, offered an explanation, saying Alexander presented his honest evaluation for the budget, but the board saw it differently.
"We may have made some errors, but we will go on as if the budget projections are off,'' she said. "We did what we thought was fiscally responsible.''
If it wants Alexander as superintendent through the end of his contract in June 2010, board members should give him policy direction and then get out of the way as it is implemented. If they want someone to wear the black hat making unpopular calls while they ride in afterward to win political points, they've succeeded.
That is not to say the board should be a rubber stamp. But, what it should be doing now is finding a superintendent in whom it has the faith to administer the district as the board —the elected representatives of the public — sees fit.
There is indeed a magician at work at the Hernando School Board. Leadership is disappearing and a board majority didn't pull a rabbit out of a hat, just a lame duck.