The new guard: Brady set to take over as sparks fly
Thomas M. Brady, who was named by the School Reform Commission on May 16 to be the interim leader of the School District effective July 1, has had a baptism by fire, to say the least.
Not only did one commission member stalk out of the meeting in protest, but the mayor and governor – who both have great sway over District finances – issued a statement the next day blasting the SRC’s action.
None of that has stopped Brady, however, from wanting to fill the considerable shoes of Paul Vallas on a permanent basis. He took in stride the political drama that played out on the day of his appointment, a drama that exposed the strained relationship between SRC Chair James Nevels, installed by Republicans, and the Democratic mayor and governor. He said that he didn’t take it personally.
“It was unique, a surprise, but have I seen stranger?” said Brady at a session with reporters after the SRC meeting. “The world of K-12 education is a unique place.”
What’s more important to him, he said, were concerns expressed at the meeting that he is an unknown quantity in the city. “I have to reach out to people who said, ‘We don’t even know this guy, and make sure they do know me,’” he said.
Brady, 56, was appointed by the SRC just two months earlier to be the District’s chief operating officer (COO), plucked from the Washington, DC system, where he had been in a similar job since 2004. From 1999 to 2003 he was COO in the Fairfax County, VA schools, which his five children attended.
He decided to make school leadership his second career after 25 years in the Army. He retired in 1998 as a full colonel and commanding officer at Fort Belvoir, VA.
Ever since Vallas announced his intention to leave, Brady had been discussed as either his temporary or permanent replacement. Brady said that he is confident he’ll “be in the mix” as the SRC launches its national search for the next long-term leader of the District.
He told reporters that he and his wife, a nurse, have bought a house in the city and plan to stay. He also said that he doesn’t intend to put himself in the running for the CEO position in other school districts.
In 2004, before taking the DC job, he spent a year as a Broad Superintendents Academy fellow, a 10-month program that trains executives with backgrounds in the military, business, nonprofit organizations, government, and education to lead urban public school districts.
In Fairfax County, a diverse but mostly suburban district of about 70,000 students, he was president of his children’s high school parent-teacher association. The experience opened his eyes, he said.
“I guess I was the first male president and got to know the school administration,” he said. “It suddenly dawned on me, I thought I had a pretty tough job being a commander of a fairly large military post, and I saw the daily workings of the principal of a large secondary school and thought, this is pretty tough work, too. So I said, here’s an opportunity to try and make a difference.”
Son of a New York City cop, he attended parochial schools in Queens and then Niagara University, a Catholic institution. While not a professional educator, he said he had been certified to teach secondary education in New York before entering the army.
Mary Filardo is director of 21st Century School Fund, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that works to improve urban school facilities. She got to know Brady during his tenure there, when as COO he was in charge of facilities management.
“Tom is a genuinely decent human being,” Filardo said. “One of the things I loved about him: he went to all the community meetings, where people were angry about school closings, or upset about whatever – the superintendent would send him out. He was always gracious, always respectful, and happened to be able to make people feel better about things.”
She said he would always thank people for coming. “He was a breath of fresh air in that way,” she said, always interested in what people thought. She said he worked hard on the public processes set up in DC to write master plans for facilities and for education.
“He came to all the meetings and he listened,” she added. “He cares about process.”
Brady said that in his first six weeks in Philadelphia, he visited 22 schools to learn as much as he could about the District. His short-term goals, he said, are to close the budget gap, figure out what academic reforms work and can be paid for with limited resources, and continue work on improving facilities. He promised that by September, all 60,000 windows in the District’s hundreds of buildings will be able to be opened.
As far as the plan for permanent succession, the SRC says it plans to hire a search firm that would review candidates and solicit public input.
Philadelphia’s Education First Compact, a coalition of education stakeholders, is calling for transparency in the search process and is compiling a list of qualifications and characteristics it would like to see in a new superintendent.
Michael Casserly, director of the Council of Great City Schools, said that Philadelphia is well positioned to find a permanent superintendent because there are now fewer openings – six or seven in the 100 largest school districts – than is customary at this time of year.
While the competition may have decreased, he said, “These jobs are not for the faint of heart. There are a limited number of people who want to do them and have the skills to do them.”
While Philadelphia is an attractive city, he said, its unstable funding situation could work against it.
Something else that might give a prospective CEO pause is the political conflict within the SRC that broke out into the open when Brady was appointed. Commissioner Sandra Dungee Glenn accused chairman Nevels of blindsiding her with the resolution and walked out of the meeting.
Nevels and Commissioner James Gallagher are appointees of former Republican governor Mark Schweiker. Martin Bednarek and Dungee Glenn are appointees of Mayor Street. Governor Rendell recently appointed Denise McGregor Armbrister to fill the fifth seat.
Along with Brady, Fred Farlino was appointed interim chief operating officer to succeed Brady and James Doosey as interim chief financial officer to replace Folasade Olanipekun-Lewis, who resigned. Both Farlino and Doosey have held these positions on an interim basis before.
The District may soon have no permanent appointees in its top leadership positions because Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton has been interviewing for other superintendent jobs.
“I’m highly insulted; I feel disrespected as a commissioner,” Dungee-Glenn said as she stalked out of the meeting.
Even though Dungee Glenn said that her action was not meant to reflect personally on Brady or his qualifications, the mayor and governor, in an unusual broadside, said they should have been consulted and questioned the fitness of the team to lead the District.
“We are concerned that the three-member interim team that has been appointed does not have the necessary combination of experience, relationships and qualifications needed … at this crucial juncture to permit the Philadelphia School District to successfully address the very formidable financial and academic challenges presently faced,” the statement said.