Montgomery's New School Chief Loved, Hated |
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 6, 1999; Page A1
It was a typical public comment period before a school board meeting in Greensboro, N.C., last week: One man gushed praise for the superintendent, one accused him of playing politics and doing it badly, and another wildly vowed to be arrested because he hated him so. And there was Jerry Weast, as usual, taking it on the chin.
If there is one true thing about the man poised to head Montgomery County's school system, one of the largest and most sophisticated districts in the country, he inspires great passion. He either turns people off with his often abrupt, crack-the-whip style, or he sets them on fire.
It remains to be seen how he will stir the people in Montgomery, for which he already has big ideas.
A case in point: Tacked in neat rows all around the wood-paneled room where the Guilford County school board meets are bar charts pulsing in red and blue. They are six years' worth of the district's reading, writing, science and math scores. The bars go up generally, even surprisingly so at some of the poorest schools. For that, even Weast's detractors give him grudging credit.
But at the bottom of each of the 94 sheets in bold lettering is the name of each school principal, the person Weast holds most responsible for any success and, more terrifyingly, for every failure. That has made him some enemies.
"He's like General Patton," Johnny Hodge, a longtime board member, says as he leaves the meeting. "He's determined, driven. He goes straight ahead to his destination. People couldn't stand Patton, but he was very successful."
Weast, 51, a school superintendent from the time he was 25, has won a national reputation for taking three fiercely independent and unequal school systems in the county and merging them into one, for raising test scores even as he cut costs and for making some headway, albeit small, on the troubling and long-standing gap in test scores and grades between white and minority students.
He's done that by putting more money into poorer schools, even hiring a former consultant to work full time on closing the gap, and taking heat from some in the white community for it.
"He's the only superintendent I've ever heard talk about equity rather than equality," said Deborah Jones, principal of Hampton Elementary, a year-round school in one of the poorest, crime-infested neighborhoods in Greensboro. "Dr. Weast was the first person brave enough to say there are some children who simply need more because of their circumstances."
His loyal followers use words like focused, intense, hard-working, even brilliant to describe him. Controlling. Confident, with a touch of gall. A technophile. They echo the slogans Weast has come up with for the system and himself: "Achievement Up. Costs Down." "Children First." "The superintendent is a teacher on special assignment."
They marvel at his ability to work a room, Phil Donahue-style, and squeeze what has amounted to about $30 million from the business community to bring innovative early childhood development programs and teacher training to the schools.
But to his critics, Weast is a self-promoter who can't be trusted. An egotist who looks good on paper and tears around town, car phone in hand, in a big black Infiniti QX4 sport utility vehicle. A man so driven to weed out incompetent teachers that he spent nearly a half-million dollars one year on a law firm to document problems, then interrogate teachers for hours in the central office. Sixty-five later resigned or were fired.
"I'm not saying he's incompetent," said one elementary school teacher who asked not to be named. "But he's slick, slick, slick, slick, slick."
People blame Weast because the schools are so old and crowded that nearly 450 aging portable classrooms litter the parking lots. Northwest Guilford High School looks like a mobile home park. "The science lab for my daughter was a rolling cart," said parent Susan Bever, who now lives in Fairfax County.
Voters defeated a school construction bond in 1994, and county commissioners have been tight with the purse strings in this manufacturing area, which is both the furniture and hosiery capital of the world. But Weast's detractors say he could have swallowed his pride, mended more fences and worked the system better to change that.
And a controversial new redistricting plan, designed to end cross-town busing, is likely to leave as many as 14 schools nearly 80 percent black or more.
"My biggest complaint is that of the seven or eight schools on the drawing boards, all are in the white area," said Melvin "Skip" Alston, a county commissioner and head of the state NAACP who recently called for Weast's resignation. "What he's doing is rewarding white flight from the inner city."
Weast has heard all this. Relishes it, almost. It comes with the territory, he says, of being a risk-taker. A "change agent." And he can take it.
"I have a strong belief that education is the key to open life's doors and that every person that's eligible and can ought to have an education of the highest quality and rigor," he said. "Sometimes I do feel it's so important, I have a sense of urgency. This may be the only time some of these children have.
"And when I see America slipping into haves and have-nots, a good education can make such a big difference between long-term earning power or cutting off a lifetime of opportunity."
And that's something Weast knows only too well. He grew up dirt poor on a farm in southeastern Kansas in a house with no running water and an outhouse in back, he said. He toiled to get through college, working the oil fields and the graveyard shift at a service station to pay for courses at a community college and his business degree from Pittsburg State University in Kansas.
Weast is sitting in his homey office, crowded with books, videos of his monthly address to the schools, knickknacks, a rocking chair and Zulu rug. Plaques and awards cover the wall. Two clocks, one mounted on a weathered plank, tick. And displayed prominently on the bookshelves just under a big stovepipe "Cat in the Hat" hat is the self-help bible, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People."
Not a hair is out of place. His maroon penny loafers are polished. His cell phone and beeper chirp constantly. And his folksy, corn-pone style masks an iron resolve and a single-minded focus on numbers, spreadsheets and the unbending stories they tell.
"There's so much emotion and politics in education," he said. "But when children are at stake, you've got to look at the data. What do they need? How are they doing?"
Linda Weast, his wife of 15 years, who works as an education director for the Greensboro Symphony, said the dust her maverick husband kicks up can get to him, too. "He comes home beaten up," she said, "but there's enough good going on out there that makes it worth it. He gets up in the morning, licks his wounds and goes on back into battle."
She sheds a hint of light on an intensely private public man: someone who has both sat onstage watching the Vienna Philharmonic and ridden horses on the Oregon coast in the moonlight. A guy who likes to throw on jeans and cowboy boots and dance the shag.
Jerry Weast fingers a photograph of the towering Teton mountain range, a remnant of his time out West working as a superintendent in Montana and South Dakota.
In contentious public meetings, this is where he often goes in his mind. "Beauty centers me," he said, "Nature centers me." But before he gets lost in a reverie, or allows a crack in his relentless public persona, he circles back to his message: "Even nature is in a continual process of change. It's tough to see that little flower die; it's tough for that seed to break through the crust."
And change is something he has in mind as he contemplates Montgomery County, a system with a $1.1 billion budget, 128,000 students and 185 schools, that some argue has been resting on its laurels too long.
"Montgomery County has enjoyed an excellent reputation, but it's a county that's in America, and America is changing," he said. "The thing I like is they want every student to go to the highest level they can. I want to be a part of that. I want to change what gets in the way of that."
As in every district where he has ever worked, the former accountant first pored through the budget. And he has found some things he might want to change, including the fact that only 10 or 12 percent is truly discretionary. With the money that Montgomery has and the community support, Weast hopes to close the gap between the achievement of black and Latino students and that of white students. "There's less political stuff here. You could actually do it."
Teachers, test scores and accountability will remain big themes. "My core belief is that the people working with children are the most important thing in this business," he said. "Whether they're 9 or 90, people can tell me who the teachers were that impacted their lives."
And, he says, he has learned from his experience in Guilford County, where teachers have criticized him for forcing them to teach to the test.
"It's taken a lot of the fun out of teaching," said another Guilford County teacher who asked not to be identified. "I would say 90 percent of the teachers are completely stressed out about test scores."
Throughout his career, Weast has had firm, exacting standards that have caused both admiration and consternation. He hasn't won any popularity contests.
"What he doesn't do is accept excuses," said Jeff German, principal at a Guilford middle school.
After running a series of small school districts in Kansas, Weast was hired in the mid-1980s to run the Great Falls, Mont., school district.
"When we hired Jerry, we knew we were only a steppingstone for his career," recalled Claudia Steen, then the school board chair. "The moment you talk to Dr. Weast, you know that -- he has big plans."
And there, too, Weast did not fare well with teachers. "He insisted that you call him 'Dr. Weast,' " said Lynn Allison, president of the Great Falls Education Association.
In 1989, he was hired by the Durham County, N.C., school system, whose board members were wowed by his confidence and charisma, qualities he needed to get a $125 million bond referendum approved for school construction.
But he also showed a prickly side -- an abrupt manner that some principals on the receiving end called "getting weasted."
He landed in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he was admired for providing every teacher with a personal computer, but faulted for aggressively "cleaning house" and getting rid of a number of top administrators.
"Sometimes Jerry stepped on toes without thinking of the ramifications," said Mary Tidwell, a former school board member. "Jerry gets things done, but Jerry did not instill in people a sense that they could trust him.
"You can't fault his record when you look at the things he's accomplished," she added. "What you can fault probably is his style."
Tell that to Joan McCorkle. Even as viewers were calling in to a local TV show, overwhelmingly urging Weast to go -- Jerry, tell me where you live, I'll help you pack your bags -- McCorkle was weeping.
At an end-of-the-year teacher seminar in Greensboro's big convention center, McCorkle approached an unsuspecting Weast, who had cell phone in hand, foot on chair. "We have come a long, long way," said the teacher at Fairview, another of Guilford's poorest schools. A shaken Weast leaned over and wiped a tear from her face.
"I just want you to know," she said, her eyes closed, her voice a controlled whisper, "you have made a difference here."
Schulte reported from Greensboro, and Argetsinger reported from Annapolis. Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company