Be Nice or Leave

Jul 6, 2012

“Be Nice or Leave!” is a local adage that can be found almost everywhere in New Orleans on signature signs that are popularized by folk artist Dr. Bob. Plain and direct, the saying captures a chronic problem that locals have found a suitable solution to.

Whether you’ve had too much to drink in a neighborhood speakeasy or if you disrespect venerable school principals, the old adage applies: “Be Nice or Leave.” ‘Tis the case of consultant Aamir Raza. The Algiers Charter Schools Association hired Raza to serve in the immediate absence of recently resigned CEO, Andrea Thomas-Reynolds.

Facing academic stagnation, school takeover and no CEO, ACSA needed decisive and immediate leadership. Before the ink could dry on his contract, Raza proposed a plan to move two of ACSA’s most effective, popular and powerful principals to other schools. Algiers needs to replicate its success stories.  Consequently, Raza sought to move high performing principals to low performing schools. Raza also planned to fire central office staff and numerous teachers. 

Raza’s proposition naturally led to an ebullient and organized response, which the faith community helped organize. In response to the upheaval, the board immediately halted Raza’s plans, which probably would have worked 7 years ago.

In many other places, the act of a stoic educational leader who applies a scorched earth policy may work, but the problem with such an approach in New Orleans is that we’ve already had Katrina.  Moreover, the city and region experienced multiple waves of explosive reforms.  We’ve grown tired of brash, controversial and divisive educational figures. Most reformers and nearly all community members now prefer ice to fire, strategy to bombast.

It’s always better to attack problems rather than people. The board could have asked the proven principals to step into administrative roles, which could include supervision of their originating school. Raza could have enlisted the principals’ subordinates to replicate success. 
Raza’s moves appear more scripted than tactical. Many reformers will robotically say they won’t deal with what is affectionately known as “adult issues” (which happen to be people). Just like a new CEO routinely fires employees to see stock prices go up, reformers have done the same to garner political and economic support.

But being mean should never be in fashion. Change is painful enough.

What was an authentic struggle to find solutions is looking more and more like a reality show. Leaders are firing and transferring employees without assessing talent.  We’ve pushed legislation that expanded and authorized vouchers without accountability. State bureaucrats are evaluating schools with a half-baked grading system.  All these initiatives reflect brawn instead of brains.  Didn’t Louisiana just pass anti-bullying legislation? 

The goal of education is to improve the community, not to improve despite the community. Raza is quoted in the TP as saying, “I will not sell out the children of New Orleans in the interests of adults, nepotism, self-interests, adult bickering and political interests." If ultimatums are going to be thrown, let’s stick with “Be Nice or Leave!”