Constance Clayton The Two Schools Of Thought Supporters Contend She's Reclaimed A School District In Disarray. Critics Say The Hard Data To Prove That Assertion Is Difficult To Come By.

Posted: March 15, 1991

There was hell to pay when Schools Superintendent Constance E. Clayton did not receive an invitation last month to a reception honoring former Board of Education President Herman Mattleman.

Never mind that Mattleman had resigned in November out of frustration over what he considered Clayton's iron-fisted way of running the School District and did not want her there. It was bad for her image and the district's to not get an invitation to a high-visibility event like the reception at the Fidelity Bank building sponsored by the Fellowship Commission.

Bernard Watson, chief executive officer of the William Penn Foundation, a major behind-the-scenes power broker and a staunch supporter of Clayton, found the apparent omission to be an "outrage" and an "insult," as he later termed it.

Watson called the Fellowship Commission and declared that he would not attend the reception since Clayton had not been invited.

Clayton was immediately faxed an apology with an explanation that her invitation must have been misplaced, according to people familiar with the event. Both she and Watson attended.

Image is important to Clayton, who is widely credited with repairing the tarnished reputation of the district over the past eight years by restoring it to financial health, instituting wide-ranging curriculum changes and avoiding labor strife while becoming a national advocate for children.

But there are a growing number of people who say that she has become so concerned with image that her effectiveness could be compromised at a time the district faces daunting challenges: a looming budget deficit that could reach $231 million within three years, shrinking resources and a student body that increasingly reflects the many social ills afflicting the city.

These critics say that the 53-year-old schools superintendent:

* Avoids meaningful discussion and stifles constructive criticism, and is quick to call anyone who criticizes her or the district an enemy of the city's schoolchildren.

* Demotes or forces out those who disagree with her and promotes people more for loyalty than competence.

* Has been reluctant to make available data on students' progress because it might not agree with the image she has carefully cultivated of a school system on the move.

* Has maintained her power, in part, because her more influential supporters are quick to characterize those who challenge her as being sexist, racist, or both.

Among these critics, all of whom supported Clayton in the past, are several current and former Board of Education members, and district employees, civic leaders and parents.

"She's like a puppet-master, up behind the curtain working the strings," said Board of Education member Thomas Mills.

Mills has gone from being one of Clayton's strongest supporters to being one of her most vocal opponents. He was the only board member to oppose a four-year extension of her contract and hefty pay raise approved on March 4.

The board "wastes a hell of a lot of time in this wonderfulness syndrome," Mills said. "Clayton's not held up to a high standard of accountability."

Ralph Smith, Clayton's chief of staff from 1987 until he quit in 1989, said that a schools superintendent "should create a system where people are free to criticize."

"By sheer force of personality, she put together a team of people and made the system believe in itself," said Smith. "That was the mission in the 1980s."

"In the 1990s, there's a real need for discussion and debate."

Clayton responds to Mills, Smith and others who have spoken out in opposition to her by saying, "There are going to be the critics. They will be criticizing me long after I'm gone."

Her deputy superintendent, Albert Glassman, characterizes her critics as people who feed off "falsehoods" planted by Smith. His comment reflects deep wounds in the superintendent's office that still have not healed a year and a half after Clayton and Smith had a highly publicized falling-out.

"She has converted the image of the school system from one of a failing institution to one where people could reside some hope," said Glassman.

Watson said the fact that Clayton is black and a woman brings "extra criticism, scrutiny, praise and suspicion."


The school system Constance E. Clayton inherited in October 1982 was in turmoil.

Test scores were low and absenteeism among pupils, teachers and staff was high. Students were promoted automatically. Budget deficits, crippling strikes and the perception that the district was bloated with patronage jobs hastened the exodus of middle-class families.

Enrollment had dropped from 294,726 students in 1970 to 206,984 when Clayton took over. It has further declined to 189,000 as the number of economically disadvantaged students - and the kind of problems that educators never had to deal with before - have steadily increased.

The image Clayton projected from the outset was in marked contrast to that of her predecessor, Michael Marcase.

Marcase had been superintendent for seven years, resigning after he was engulfed in a tidal wave of bad press, including an Inquirer series titled ''The Shame of the Schools," reports that he received his doctorate from an unaccredited university and allegations that district employees made repairs on his beach house.

Clayton, who brought an excellent reputation as the district's associate superintendent for early childhood education to the top job, marshaled her substantial knowledge of educational issues, fiscal conscientiousness and irrefutable commitment to children and moved quickly to establish herself as a strict authoritarian who expected excellence.

"I came in behind the (newspaper) articles . . . and I said, 'My God, what is this I'm walking into?' But you know what you're walking into and you move expeditiously," she recalled during a lengthy interview.

Clayton and her top aides made unannounced visits to schools to see firsthand what was being taught and soon learned that it varied widely from school to school.

"I couldn't believe that in some elementary schools science was not being taught," she said. "I said, 'Where is the equity, where is the balance?' "

Clayton quickly fell into a pattern of 16-hour workdays. Her friends admiringly call her a "workaholic," and in her first three years as superintendent, she only took one vacation - a week in Paris.

Within two years, Clayton had established a standardized curriculum and abolished automatic promotions. Simultaneously, she concentrated on restoring the district to fiscal solvency, and the district has posted surpluses in each of the past three years.

And in contrast to the Marcase era, Clayton's negotiators have been able to work out labor contracts without a single strike.

"It was a renewal and a rebirth," said Bill Jones, who was the district's chief spokesman for 22 years, five of them under Clayton.

Early on, Clayton called for a partnership between the business community and schools. That collaboration has translated into millions of dollars for the district in the form of grants, and jobs for thousands of students.

Clayton also went to the Chamber of Commerce for advice on how to manage the district's food services and purchasing departments.

About $1 million was unaccounted for in the subsidized school-lunch program and there was considerable waste in the purchasing department, which regularly bought equipment without assessing whether it was needed.

The Sun Company lent executive Fred Wookey Jr. to the district, where he used his expertise as a manager while serving as deputy superintendent from 1983 to 1985. He investigated district contracts and corruption in the district's food-services department, and was able to help in an FBI investigation that led to two district employees being indicted in kickback scams.

"(Clayton) was very adamant about wanting to purge the system," Wookey said.

In her first two speeches as superintendent, one to business leaders and another to the Board of Education, she sounded two themes that would be heard over and over again: "The Children Come First," and "Have You Helped a Child Today?"

Clayton's concern with image and the manner in which she seemed to react to criticism began raising eyebrows early in her tenure, according to several high-ranking district employees, Board of Education members and civic activists.

Bernard Rafferty, who was an associate superintendent when Clayton took over, said he disagreed with her on a matter dealing with principals during an executive Cabinet meeting in 1984.

He said then-Deputy Superintendent Howard Amos told him he would no longer be invited to Cabinet meetings, was being transferred to another job, and would take orders from him, not Clayton.

"In my perception, people who don't disagree with her remain working for her . . . I don't think it's good for an organization," Rafferty said.

Clayton said she never ordered Rafferty not to come to Cabinet meetings. ''No one was ever banned," she said, adding that she transferred him to a position she believed he could handle.

Wookey, while generally praising Clayton, said the superintendent ''yelled" at him when she found out he had called the FBI in the course of the food-services department investigation. He said she was upset because she did not know that the FBI was being called in and did not have time to craft a public presentation about what the investigation was about.

"She very much wants to manage the news, good and bad," Wookey said.

While the district's partnership with the business community appears to have worked well, Clayton has been less successful in dealing with community watchdog groups.

The Council for Educational Priorities, a group of business and civic leaders who had pushed for her appointment, found itself frozen out after it issued its first report of the Clayton era in 1983, two of the group's leaders said.

Incensed that the council would make public the report, which was critical of the way school facilities were being managed by the district, Clayton designed a strict procedure that civic groups had to follow to conduct studies that made it difficult to get information, the two leaders said.

Clayton expressed dissatisfaction with the report, but denied she cut off access, saying the group just stopped asking for information.

"They gave it to us the same day they gave it to the press and said you have 10 days to respond," Clayton said.

The Council for Educational Priorities disbanded in 1989 because it was unable to get funding.

Among the keys to Clayton's early success were an unquestioning press and unprecedented support in City Hall and on the Board of Education.

Board members agreed that there should not be a repetition of the strife and controversy that marked their deliberations during the Marcase years, several of these members said.

"She's had a supportive board throughout," said board member Mills. ''Early on, I bought into the idea that you change the perception first and then the substance."

But as the years went on, Mills said, the board became lazy and has allowed Clayton to dictate what information is made public and how board meetings are run.

"The public watching us must conclude we're either deaf-mutes or brain- dead," Mills said.

Said Wookey: "There isn't anything that's presented to the school board that isn't previewed by Connie. She literally watches over and guides all that is said about the School District as much as she can."

It was August 1988 when Clayton's chief of staff, Ralph Smith, walked into her office and presented her with a memo he said was intended to notify her he wanted to resign.

Smith had been hired by Clayton in 1983 to work on a desegregation plan for the district. His responsibilities grew, and by 1988 he was widely considered to be the superintendent's right-hand man.

Smith said he wrote in the memo that he could no longer work under the constraints Clayton had placed on him. These constraints, he said, included his having been told by Clayton that he was not allowed to talk to several people whom Clayton viewed as threats.

Smith said he agreed to stay after Clayton agreed to give him more freedom. Clayton denies that Smith sought to resign or that she told him he could not talk to certain people.

Smith said he and Clayton continued to clash.

He said he vocally opposed two appointments Clayton made in the spring of 1989 - district associate superintendent and executive director of human resources.

Smith said he opposed Clayton's choice for the human resources job because she had overlooked applicants he thought were qualified and had told him she was naming another district administrator because of that administrator's loyalty to her.

"The fact that without consultation she promoted somebody . . . without any kind of search and admitted that loyalty was a major ingredient in that decision, was a clear signal to me which way the School District was headed," Smith said.

Clayton said both people she appointed were highly qualified and worked in an acting status for a year to make sure they could handle the jobs before they were given permanent status.

Smith said he and Clayton also disagreed on what data - information that would show which schools and students were improving and which were not - should be made public.

Clayton indeed has been reluctant to release test and other statistical information.

Gary Orfield, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said he came to Philadelphia in the mid-1980s to obtain test scores, attendance figures and other basic data for a larger study on urban school districts and was unable to get much useful information.

"I've never been able to find anybody who's done an independent study of the Philadelphia School District," he said. "(Philadelphia school) officials were very friendly, but no information was forthcoming," he said.

Clayton argues that it is difficult to measure students' progress because the demographics of the student body change so radically from year to year. She also has pointed out that this kind of data does not take into account how the economic hardships of many students affect their performance, but she stresses that she does not want to use that as an excuse.

Asked to provide data that will show how the academic programs she has implemented are having an impact, Clayton notes that hundreds of students have entered science fairs and essay contests who never did before, that every middle school is now offering algebra in the eighth grade, that there is a plan to phase out general math on the high-school level, and that more students are in advanced placement classes and classes for the mentally gifted.

Neither she nor her staff has been able to provide many statistics to measure the impact of these academic programs because the information was gathered by hand in the early 1980s and is too hard to compile, said Rita Altman, associate superintendent for assessment and accountability.

That may have to change.

Last year, City Council granted a 5 percent property tax increase only after Clayton agreed to academic achievement goals that Council could use to evaluate the district's performance.

The goals include increasing the number of students in higher-level advanced-placement courses and reducing the achievement gap among white and Asian and black and Hispanic students. The district has not yet released any data on how it is progressing toward those goals.

comments powered by Disqus