At the Table: The Reality of Christina

Superintendent Lillian Lowery sets the record straight on the Christina School District fiasco. It's not what you think.





“The most salient aspect is that people lost their jobs,” Lowery says. “I have had to make performance evaluation decisions before, but it has never been where good people were doing very good work and because of circumstances completely out of our control, they had to suffer a Consequence that was just very disheartening.”
photograph by Christian Kaye
http://www.christiankaye.com

Lillian Lowery endured one of the most challenging
years a school superintendent could ever face.

She took the helm of Christina School District on March 13, 2006, replacing Joseph Wise, who had begun an ambitious reform movement before he accepted a similar job in Florida.

Lowery soon found herself in one of the biggest public school controversies in state history. An audit of the district’s finances—a review that Lowery had requested as part of her three-year contract—uncovered a multi-million dollar budget deficit.

Lowery had inherited a mess.

More than a year of upheaval followed. Nearly 400 employees, including nurses, paras, teachers and even administrators lost their jobs. Salaries were frozen. Operations were streamlined. A second round of cuts last spring claimed another 97 positions.

In March, the Christina school board signed off on a plan it hoped would right the ship. The strategy included closing three struggling schools in Wilmington, but the city and two parents filed a successful injunction to block the closures.

Lowery joined Delaware Today on May 9 at the Back Burner in Hockessin. She seemed relaxed, despite having to re-live her tumultuous first 13 months at Christina.

Since then, she and the district continue to contend with declining enrollment as students abandon city and suburban schools for increasingly popular charter schools. The trend could result in further staff reductions because state funding is based on enrollment.

And some folks wonder why Lowery, who came to Delaware after serving as an assistant superintendent in Fairfax County, Virginia, has yet to buy a house here.

DT: So, how was your first year?

LL: As ironic as it may sound, it has been professionally a good year. What this year has done for me professionally is really focus me on who I am, what I believe in, what I’m willing to fight for. It has been probably the most difficult year that anyone in that district has ever experienced.

To have to come in and pretty much pick apart some pretty progressive reform initiatives for which people had invested lots of time and energy was not the way I wanted to come in as superintendent. And it was certainly disheartening to many people who had been a part of that.

The most salient aspect of that disheartening situation is that people actually lost their jobs. That’s just tough. I have had to make performance evaluation decisions before, but it has never been where good people were doing very good work on behalf of kids and the school district, and because of circumstances completely out of our control, they had to suffer a consequence that was just very disheartening.

Here are people who came to a district with a trust and a belief in what they were doing and what we said would be happening for and on their behalf and dealt with us in good faith and they were blindsided. We all were.

DT: At the time Christina was looking for a new superintendent, I don’t recall a lot of controversy. Some folks had bought into Wise’s reform plan and others never would. Is that what you were looking at coming in?

LL: I was looking at it in absolutely that way. And as I did my research for coming into the district, and once I was selected to be superintendent, working on building on what those initiatives had produced for this district, I was more in awe of all the work that the board and superintendent had done and was trying to determine how we kick this to the next level.

But being prudent, I asked for an audit. And this fiscal deficit was then presented as a completely different perspective of where we were going and what we were going to have to do.

DT: Is it standard for a superintendent to request an audit as part of his or her contract?

LL: If it is not, it should be. Most people who have had any training for district leadership would know that, no matter what people tell you, you’d better find out for yourself.

DT: You had no idea that something bad might turn up?

LL: At the end of the day, I was hoping that, OK, when we’re done with this audit, we’ll know exactly where we stand fiscally. I’ll know how much money we have in each fund account and then, as we move forward with the reform, we can determine how we’re going to best spend those dollars that we have to either continue or build upon.

DT: There were no whispers? No heads up? No, “Hey, this guy’s shifty?”

LL: Absolutely not. Coming in, I had read about the inordinate amount of audits that the district had had. I don’t know exactly the number. There’s a dispute of the number. That the district had been audited on several occasions probably should have sent a red flag. But I thought more in line of, here was a district engaged in reform and some people were pushing back on the reform, and how the reform was being implemented. And they were being cleared at every turn. So, beyond that, there was no indication that there was any kind of fiscal considerations that needed to be addressed.

DT: You accepted the job before the results of the audit came back, right?

LL: I accepted in January. March 13 was my start date. The audit took place in April and May. At that time, we were probably in a review of finance, not in audit, because actually it was the comprehensive review of finance that kicked off the subsequent audit finding.

DT: I read that your contract contains an exit clause. Is that standard, as well?

LL: That is always negotiated because everyone comes into a circumstance full of hope and expectation and good feelings. But as districts and leadership start navigating the waters of running a district, the considerations of that are based on whatever the circumstances are. Sometimes what one thought would work and be a good relationship just isn’t. So that’s usually negotiated, even in terms of how that would look if it is initiated by the board and if it’s initiated by the employee.

DT: You took the job and this happened. Did you still have a chance to get out via that clause?

LL: Yes.

DT: Did you ever consider using it?

LL: Never. It would have been so much nicer to know, mentally, what I was walking into. So I would have walked in

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February 2016

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1200 N DuPont Highway
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1200 N DuPont Highway
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Telephone: 302-629-6611x2446
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Cost: Depends on what you purchase

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30336 Cordrey Rd
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Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church
500 McKennans Church Rd
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500 McKennans Church Rd
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Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
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More information

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View map »


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300 S. Broad St.
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Delaware State University will feature the following events and exhibitions during its 2016 Black History Month celebration: Wednesday, Feb. 3 Black Lives Matter Symposium Documentary...

Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
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View map »


Website »

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Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
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801 Middleford Rd.
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Telephone: 302-629-6611 ext. 2540
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1101 Arch St.
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Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
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Philadelphia, PA  19104
View map »


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More information

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Cost: $0-14

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Cost: Free

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The Gibby Center for the Arts
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View map »


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Cost: Free

Where:
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View map »


Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
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Cost: $15–$18

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47 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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View map »


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Cost: $40

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, DE

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Cost: Free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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View map »


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Website »

More information

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Cost: $13

Where:
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1101 Arch St.
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More information

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Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
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Philadelphia, PA  19104
View map »


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What was behind the legendary story of King Midas and his golden touch? That is the question to be answered—not with chests full of gold, but with a spectacular array of ancient artifacts,...

Cost: Adults $20; seniors $18; students (with ID) $15; children (ages 6–17) $15

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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Guests can explore three floors of exhibitions in the Visitor Center, stroll along the river through dozens of historic structures from the Industrial Revolution, and explore the gardens and...

Cost: $0-14

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Rd
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
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Penn Museum opens the world premiere exhibition The Golden Age of King Midas—featuring ancient treasures on loan from the Republic of Turkey—with a spectacular daylong public...

Cost: $15

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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This art exhibit features fine art works and three dimensional pieces that embrace the subject “red.” Artist are free to use their imagination and creativity, so works will include...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
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For more information, please contact: Dave Ruffner ​Rehoboth Beach Film Society 107 Truitt Ave. Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 302-645-9095, ext. 4 administrator@rehobothfilm.com...

Cost: Free

Where:
, DE


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society and CAMP Rehoboth will co-present "Tab Hunter Confidential" and "Portrait of a Serial Monogamist" as part of its annual Another Take...

Cost: $8

Where:
Metropolitan Community Church
19369 Plantation Rd.
Rehoboth Beach, DE  19971
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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"La Sylphide" shares the beautiful and romantic story of our hero, James—a young Scottish farmer who, on the eve of hid wedding, abandons his betrothed, Effie, after being...

Cost: $25

Where:
Salesanium School
1801 North Broom St.
Wilmington, DE  19802
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Sponsor: Academy of International Ballet
Telephone: 1-866-908-5666
Contact Name: Denis Gronostayskiy
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Venture back with us for an evening where we re-imagine the Victorian Industrial Age as seen through our steam-powered, futuristic goggles.  Our biggest fundraiser of the year and all proceeds...

Cost: $100-$110

Where:
Smyrna Opera House
7 West South Street
Smyrna, DE  19977
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A spoiled orphan girl is sent to live with her uncle on the Yorkshire moors and discovers renewed life, for herself and her sickly cousin, in bringing her dead aunt’s secret garden back to...

Cost: $15–$18

Where:
The Secret Garden
47 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Everett Theatre
Telephone: 302-540-8561
Contact Name: Chris Everett
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Location: St. Mark’s High School, 2501 Pike Creek Road, Wilmington Time: Registration: 11:30 a.m. Race: 12:30 p.m. Fee: $25 (until Thursday, Feb. 11), $35 after and day of event...

Where:
, DE

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Location: Beebe Healthcare’s Medical Center, 424 Savannah Road, Lewes Date: Saturday, Feb. 13 (and the second Saturday of each month) Time: 9 a.m. Fee: Free For more...

Where:
, DE

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Ditch the winter whites for a world of dazzling color at Longwood Gardens, where you can stroll through thousands of orchids in bloom. Kennett Square, www.longwoodgardens.org 

Where:
, DE

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A successful writer of Broadway thrillers is struggling to overcome a dry spell when he receives a script from a student —a potential Broadway hit. Thereafter suspense...

Where:
, DE

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Regional artists Carol Tippit Woolworth, Catherine Drabkin, Pahl Alexander Hluchan, Colleen Randall and Dan Jackson explore the concept of place—physical, emotional and spiritual—in...

Where:
, DE

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