Right on the Money
Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery has lived through—and managed—financial crisis before. All reports indicate she will do it again.
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In a state struggling with a $606 million budget deficit, the secretary of education, who oversees about a third of the state’s budget, would appear to face an overwhelming task—unless, of course, that secretary brings to the job a steely resolve forged in the white-hot crucible that was the Christina School District.
Meet Dr. Lillian Lowery.
Lowery arrived in Delaware from Virginia in March of 2006, a rookie superintendent eager to oversee the Christina District, the state’s largest, which had instituted innovative programs under the guidance of her predecessor, Dr. Joseph Wise—programs which, she said, she hoped to take “to the next level.” But first she asked the state to conduct a financial audit of the district. The results blindsided both Lowery and her board of education. It revealed a $28 million deficit, about $17.5 million of which was incurred by 145 employee positions filled without state funding.
“What we sold her and what she got were two different things,” says James “Jimmy” Durr, Christina District board president. “What was presented to her was a district on the cutting edge of changing the face of education in Delaware. When we did that financial audit, we found out we were on the brink of bankruptcy. Lillian could have turned around and walked away, saying ‘This is not what I signed up for.’ She could’ve blamed the board. But she didn’t. Instead she said, ‘This is the situation we’re in. Now how can we together as a team correct this and educate our children?’”
Lowery and the board then began the Herculean task of restoring the district’s fiscal health. Through several rounds of job cuts, creative budgeting, a multimillion-dollar emergency loan from the state, and a spending freeze that included her $162,000 salary, they began a slow climb out of the financial hole.
Their work was done under intense scrutiny from the media and the community, which expressed its shock and anger through numerous letters to The News Journal and messages to Lowery and board members. Yet by November 2007, enough confidence had been restored for voters to pass—by a 72 percent margin—a tax increase of 2.7 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
When Lowery took the Christina job, she quickly developed a list of contacts that included Newark’s mayor and city council members, state legislators, business and church leaders, and the state treasurer, one Jack Markell. Some of her conversations with Markell naturally included education, especially since Markell was a graduate of Newark High School. Mostly, however, Markell “wanted to get to know me,” says Lowery.
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