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Tough Choices Coming to School System 

The Orleans Parish School Board tore itself in two over its 4-3 decision to cede financial authority to the state, which has hired an out-of-town consultant to get the system's books in order. The board members who whined last week about a 'takeover' ought to thank their lucky stars that somebody else is finally in charge of the money.

Now, at least, the entire board can focus on academics, which is what the members all promised to do during their campaigns a short eight months ago. Then again, they also promised to back former school Supt. Anthony Amato to the hilt. Less than 100 days into their terms, however, they managed to do what the so-called 'anti-Amato' faction on the previous board had failed to do for a year: they ran the once-popular superintendent out of town on a rail.

Their justification? The system's finances were a mess.

Duh!

Amato may have deserved to take a hit for the system's financial troubles, but he should not have been alone. Sure, he failed to straighten things out, financially speaking, in the nine short months that he was in total charge. He also failed to recognize until it was too late that the state legislative auditor was trying to help. He lost valuable time rebuffing the auditor's overtures. On the other hand, he sure as hell didn't create the mess that led to his demise. That had been building for years -- probably decades. Why should he be the only one paying the ultimate price?

Moreover, what Amato was good at was academics. Not long after he was run off, test scores showed significant improvement over last year -- proof that his curricular reforms worked. Too bad the 'reform' school board had already voted to dismantle many of those remedies by the time the test scores came out. Now it's their turn to focus on the classroom.

God save the children.

Think about this, too: The consultants hired by the state to fix the system's finances have a three-year contract to do it -- and finances are all they have to worry about. Amato, by contrast, was responsible for everything in the system, but the new board canned him in just over three months.

And now some of them are complaining because the state is stepping in to fix things? They ought to be organizing a ticker-tape parade for the New York-based consultants. So far, the system's financial problems have triggered countless state and federal audits, an ongoing and wide-ranging federal criminal investigation, and the resignation of a popular superintendent.

Who in their right mind would want to take charge of such a career-ender?

It's not clear yet exactly where the lines of authority will be drawn. As several board members noted, you can't easily separate the budget from the classroom. One inevitably affects the other. Initial reports indicate the consultants will report to state Education Supt. Cecil Picard. However, there are other reports that the board will have some say-so over certain decisions.

The devil is always in the details, and the details of this deal have yet to be ironed out.

If board members were smart, they would give the new guys wide berth. Nobody in his or her right mind can deny that a lot of tough decisions have to be made in order to turn the city's public schools around. Tough decisions are rarely popular. Now that the system's finances are in the hands of people who don't have to run for re-election, the board might as well let them make the tough choices that have to be made. Meanwhile, the board had better make sure test scores keep improving. Now that all it has to focus on is academics, it can't afford any screw-ups.

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