Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Jackson, school board switch course, name internal candidate Eric Gordon as new Cleveland schools CEO

A surprise announcement from Mayor Jackson and the Cleveland school board this morning: They've named Eric Gordon, the district's chief academic officer, as the new schools CEO.

The school board rejected the search committee's top three candidates, all from outside the district. They went back to Gordon, who had made the top nine, but not the final round of interviews.

Gordon, 40, is not the sort of leader who dominates a room. He's more the smart guy who writes the plan and carries it out. He played a major role in creating the academic transformation plan, the Cleveland schools' strategy for reforming itself. He worked his way up from school principal in the Toledo and Columbus areas.

I encountered Gordon several times while writing my profile of interim schools CEO Peter Raskind. It was clear that Raskind was relying on Gordon to bring him up to speed on the schools' key issues. Raskind played a substantial role in the CEO search, and I wouldn't be surprised if he spoke up for Gordon's talents when the front-runners came up short.

Clearly, Jackson and the school board were underwhelmed by the top three finalists. Patrick O'Donnell's Plain Dealer profiles of them made the dilemma clear. Grand Rapids, Mich. superintendent Bernard Taylor has gotten results and impressed his school board, but antagonized the local teachers' union. Chris Scott of Lowell, Mass. was the opposite, beloved by the union but on the outs with her board. Cheryl Atkinson was respected for steering the Lorain schools out of crisis, but the district had not made great progress on state report cards.

With those profiles in mind, maybe the move back to Gordon isn't such a surprise after all.

Update, 5:25 pm: Cleveland.com just posted a sharp article on Gordon's appointment. Patrick O'Donnell reports:
- Raskind was offered the permanent CEO job and turned it down.
- Gordon will get only a one-year contract. "I plan to earn my right to continue," he says.
- Teacher's union president's reaction to the choice: "Wow. Really?"
- Jackson calls Gordon an attractive choice "for what we need to do in a short period of time."
- The mayor predicts the district won't need serious cuts or a tax increase for another two years, thanks to Raskind's work.
- The school board thought the three finalists hadn't innovated much compared to the reforms Gordon has helped implement here.

Update, 6/9: Plain Dealer columnist Kevin O'Brien reacts with measured praise for Gordon, but predicts he'll eventually have to "execute a graceful exit" once the transformation plan "drifts into the rocks of union resistance and the shoals of student and parental apathy." O'Brien's advice for Greater Clevelanders is also rather cynical, but mostly wise: "Don't suspend your disbelief. School superintendents are not magicians." It's a good antidote to the savior/disappointment clich├ęs that attach themselves to big-city school leaders.

To read Gordon's resume (as a pdf), click here. To read "Quick Fixer," my profile of interim CEO Peter Raskind, click here.

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