School of Hard Fox

Superintendent Jim Fox Is Far From Warm and Fuzzy

AISD Superintendent Jim Fox
On November 1995, members of parent-teacher associations from all over the Austin Independent School District convened at Anderson High School to hear superintendent Jim Fox and members of his staff present their vision of a then-unsold bond package. Fox, speaking in sonorous and measured tones, lectured the group on how critical the need for new and updated facilities was, how Austin voters had done themselves a grave disservice by turning down bonds in the past, and how his plan for putting instructional technology into all AISD classrooms was no frill, but the wave of the future. And then he paused to take another breath.

"Am I warm and fuzzy yet?" Fox asked the crowd. It was a joke, and the audience tittered appreciatively, if a little nervously.

It's no secret, even to him -- Jim Fox comes on very strong, and that's been tough for some folks to take in the nearly two years that he has been superintendent of Austin's public schools. Fox's weighty and stern rhetorical style, especially when he's speaking in public, has led some in the community to conclude that the man is simply arrogant. It's a charge he has heard before, and he responds to it with a brief (though intense) treatise on how important it is to stay focused if one is to make long-term improvements in an organization. And that is what he is in AISD to do -- make long-term improvements.

"I concentrate, when I speak in public, at the business at hand, whatever it may be," Fox says. "And I think probably as a result of that, to some extent, there is a feeling that -- I've heard this before -- I tend to be `all business.'"

But school trustees, parents, and teachers alike profess that Fox tends to be more personable in small groups or one-on-one. And he "lights up like a Christmas tree" around children, insists Kathy Rider, president of the AISD Board of Trustees. Even some of Fox's detractors will grant him one thing: He is very intelligent, experienced (20 years as a school administrator), and he looks at things in a sophisticated way, which cannot be said for some of the home-grown bubbas running other Texas public school systems.

So, perhaps Fox's charisma, as such, is anchored in his power to persuade, rather than charm. He can make you believe, absolutely, that he knows exactly what he is talking about at all times -- and the truth is, he probably does. Fox is running the Austin school system like no else has before -- and has surrounded himself with competent people. And while his detractors worry that his methods with regards to staffing at schools have been disruptive and his penchant for instituting technology constitutes a rash expense, others embrace the changes. Fox, they say, is the best thing to happen at AISD in a long time.

Thy Rod and Thy Staff

James H. Fox, Jr., became superintendent of the AISD on January 3, 1995, under several major assumptions. First of all, he would run the school district's daily affairs, and the nine-member board of trustees would stay out of management and assume the policy-setting role with which it is charged. He would do everything possible to get a bond issue passed. He would assemble community-based, "comprehensive planning" committees, groups that would help set goals and priorities for AISD for the next five years. He would bring AISD classrooms into the age of information, and promote staff training and development in technology. In short, he would change things, and fast.

To accomplish all this, he would bring in "new leadership." And he would accomplish all of this in a time when monetary aid from the state is shrinking. Fox had his work cut out for him; but then, as he never hesitated to point out, he had done all these things before during his previous, 10-year superintendency in Fulton County (Atlanta), Georgia. So, not surprisingly, Fox began by restructuring AISD's central office, hiring a few of his former colleagues (and some new people, too) who assumed positions reconstituted and consolidated from vacancies that erupted shortly before and after Fox's arrival, as well as promoting a few existing employees.

Suddenly, positions such as "Deputy Superintendent for Administrative Support Services" and "Executive Director for Accountability, Student Services and Research" appeared where there were none before. The board, holding fast to its promise not to meddle with management, has approved most of Fox's new hires -- and members say they find the people Fox has brought on to be highly competent. "I give him a lot of credit for the staff he's put in," says AISD Board vice president Jerry Carlson.

But understandably, the hiring spree has contributed to an already widely held perception that AISD's central office is top-heavy. It's a charge that Fox has consistently defended by pointing out, first of all, that he has put in place the organizational structure he requires to "move this district forward"; in any case, he always maintains, central administration isn't costing any more money than it used to; in fact, it costs less. Nonetheless, he admits, it's a hard sell to the public because "the visualization is that the person who impacts the child the most is the teacher standing in front of the child. That's true," Fox says. But, he says, the teacher also needs "the support of solid curriculum, the tools of in-service" training -- which he strongly believes teachers need and the district should provide.

AISD Board of Trustees President Kathy Rider
"This district went for almost 10 years without staff development. This district went for [over] 10 years without any real curriculum development," Fox explains. "You can get away with it for a while, but it's a false savings -- at the expense of a generation of kids." And, in that vein, AISD's Professional Development Academy, located in North Central Austin at the old Mary Read Elementary School campus, is becoming fully realized under his tenure, and the district's curriculum revision effort has finally kicked into high gear.

A less-noted fact of Fox's administration is that his "right-hand man" is a woman -- Kay Psencik, Ph.D., Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Services and School Operations. In fact, he has a number of women and minorities in his inner circle, or cabinet (as he calls it). Out of about 14 staffers who report directly to him, nine are African-American or Hispanic; five are female.

AISD trustee Loretta Edelen, the only African-American board member and the only member to abstain from voting to hire Fox, expressed her approval for Fox's minority hiring. But Edelen says she's still abstaining in her total judgment of him -- he has yet to prove himself, in her opinion, with regards to providing equity in the low-performing schools. As for the African-American public at large, Fox is regularly raked over the coals by leaders of the black community who appear at public meetings to lambast him for what they say are racist decisions. Just last Monday at the AISD board meeting, speaker after speaker took to the podium to yell at Fox for his recent decision to reinstate a white principal, Shelly Pittman, who had been temporarily removed from her position. The speakers' beef was that Fox had put a white principal back to work, rather than reinstating Eddie Orum, a controversial yet popular black principal whom Fox had dismissed earlier this year.

Others praise Fox's attention to racial diversity in hiring. Trustee Melissa Knippa says that since Fox came on board, "It's a much more interesting mix... It takes a self-assured person to surround himself with that much diversity of opinion." Her comment points to an oft-repeated observation about Fox: As difficult as it may be to believe, he doesn't hire yes-men (or women). In fact, those who work with Fox say he likes to engage his staff in very intense debate with him and each other. "I hire people who will argue with me," Fox says. But when it's over, he expects a united front, and fast action after a decision is reached.

"He doesn't (question you) to belittle you," says Hector Montenegro, formerly a principal whom Fox swiftly promoted to area superintendent in AISD. "He forces you to think." Montenegro, who says he learned a lot from Fox, became superintendent of San Marcos public schools this year with Fox's blessing.

The Principal Edge

Fox's penchant for fostering tension -- positive rather than negative, he would argue -- hasn't been limited to the central office. Early in his tenure, he sought to streamline staffing formulas a all campuses and hold "excess" teachers for reassignment. In an era when most teachers and parents want to see class sizes lowered, almost 100 teachers found themselves on a "surplus" list for the 1995-96 school year. Although most found positions on AISD campuses again, many complained that it was disruptive and that some principals used the surplus system to retaliate against them.

Perhaps some of the surplussed teachers took a bit of comfort in Fox's next move, however. He replaced over a third of the district's 96 principals with new ones, many of whom started work in the 1996-97 school year. Some of the ousted leaders retired; others found employment elsewhere. In some cases, others accepted administrative assignments under duress, and still others were reportedly quite happy to move into new central office jobs. And while Fox himself did not trumpet this as a housecleaning of folks who weren't making the grade, most stakeholders have tacitly understood it as just that.

If that seems harsh, then understand this: Fox truly believes that the principal is key to a good school, and he expects a great deal from principals, says Oscar Perry, a longtime associate of Fox's who is now with the Georgia Department of Education. "If you're not of that persuasion, then there's going to be a change," Perry says.

When asked whether 1997-98 will bring more new faces, Fox remains circumspect, saying, "There'll be some more shifts." Every principal will be evaluated every year, he adds. "If we can make a better match, we'll make a better match."

In a culture where even academe must learn to become more businesslike, teachers seem to be fair game for the downsizing arrow, even though most everyone agrees that students suffer for it. But yanking principals out of schools was nearly unheard of before Fox's arrival, and it has made people nervous. Word is, he likes to move principals around every seven years, just to keep them on their toes, to keep them from getting too comfortable. "The reality is, I've never had the opportunity," Fox answers. Wherever he goes, he brings in so many new principals that making an arbitrary, seven-year shift seemed like overkill, he says. But yes, he ascribes to the corporate theory that people should set goals for themselves, achieve those goals, and move on to the next challenge in approximately seven-year cycles.

The 33% turnover in campus leadership has especially prompted complaints from parents, who say that too many of the new principals are white females ("The Stepford Principals" phenomenon, as one wag termed it), and that some of the changes resonated as abrupt and arbitrary.

"There's no knowledge of his rationale," laments Ellen Sanchez, a parent of a student at Austin High School, which has a new principal this year. "Why is he doing what he's doing?"

But the view among AISD trustees is that the shakeups, though probably quite unpleasant for some individuals and school communities, were necessary and welcome overall. "His emphasis is on strong leadership at the campus level," says Knippa. "He's aggressive, but focused on raising the standards of expectation for everyone."

More than that, says trustee Tom Agnor, a 25-year watchdog of AISD, the old way of doing things was to put in principals who would keep the lid on trouble and never let problems reach the central office. "I think there's an atmosphere now where it's safe to ask for help," he says.

Fox Dittoheads?

Board members' nearly unanimous, resounding endorsement of Fox's personnel actions begs a question. Has the board backed off its former tendency to micromanage so much that it has handed over all power to him? And, with all the many projects members are currently tackling -- for example, implementation of the $369 million bond issue (which passed quite handily, just as Fox promised it would, thank you very much, Fox's admirers point out) and the comprehensive planning process (which was rammed through a bit too swiftly for some) -- are board members just rubber-stamping his recommendations and moving on to the next thing he throws at them? Fox has an authoritarian way, he uses That Voice, to make his points seem undeniable. Do they ever feel free to disagree with him?

"I do disagree with him. All the time," says president Rider. Earlier this year, for example, the board heard a staff recommendation that individual campuses be allowed two, instead of one, major fundraisers per school year. AISD staff furnished a long rationale for this, but several members were of the opinion that the proposed policy, as it was written, was too "nebulous." And besides, they argued, a lot of touchy issues were at stake. Had the district advisory council, a body comprised of stakeholders from all areas of town (which Fox himself had implemented) had a chance to review the proposal? Well, no, Fox conceded, but the board should understand, his staff had spent a very long time on this, and going to the district advisory council would mean a long delay in making the new rule a reality, so please get on with it. But his arguments and pushing did not fly. In the end, Fox agreed to get the input of the council and area parent-teacher associations before bringing the policy back to them for action.

A minor point, perhaps. But it indicates that the board is taking its major charge -- setting policy for AISD -- seriously, while trying to leave management up to Fox. Still, some AISD trustees say, they have lingering "communication issues" with him. Fox often doesn't talk to them about things as soon as they would like, says Carlson. "I suspect that some members feel a loss of control," says Agnor, who adds that he himself does not have a problem with Fox.

Could their gripes with him be a product of Fox's tendency to impose his "vision" on people, before he finds out what they really need or want from him? "That may be a valid criticism," says president Rider. "Part of it is, he doesn't want to go down memory lane in Austin. But in spite of himself, he's learning about Austin."

"Where he has difficulty is in his relationship with people in Austin," says trustee Liz Hartman. Fox, she says, feels such an urgency to do things, to move ahead with his vision, that he sometimes neglects to gain the respect and participation of people. "But he's got to let it become our shared vision, too," she says.

The Messiah of Technology

The further one gets away from Fox's inner circle, the more one hears that criticism. Some teachers, in particular, feel alienated from him.

"James Fox is an efficient bureaucrat. And I don't mean that as an insult," says Louis Malfaro, president of the Austin Federation of Teachers. "He's brought in an effective management team, especially on the business side. But I have yet to meet a teacher who's said, `By gum, Dr. Fox is doing a great job. We're behind him.'"

And the reason for that has to do with Fox's habit of advancing his own priorities first, and discounting teachers' priorities, Malfaro says. A salient example of this is that technology is rapidly becoming the district's main instructional focus. But Fox hasn't consulted the majority of the end users -- teachers -- about it, Malfaro complains. And Fox has not articulated to them, he adds, how classroom technology (networked computers, with interactive capability), "will move AISD forward in the areas in which it needs to be moved."

Worst of all, Malaro continues, Fox is "insulting and demeaning" when talking about teachers' lack of technological literacy. He says teachers haven't been offered training -- they've been informed they're going to take the training or be fired. "That turns people off," Malfaro says.

Fox responds that he is well aware that he appears remote to teachers ("That I regret," he says), but that comes with running a large school system. As for the technology issue: Fox goes into fully animated, rhapsodic mode when he talks about technology for schools. Under his vision, Fulton County schools were fully networked. And Fox says he's ready to take the $50 million in voter-approved, AISD bond funds slated for technology and make it a reality here. He patiently explains that the move will revolutionize education -- and that no one in any industry will have a job if they don't learn to cope with technology.

"Computer technology will be a part of the profession from now on, just like anywhere else," Fox avers. "Technology is now at the point where children who do not interact with (it) all the way through their public school career will be crippled as citizens later on."

Fox believes that most teachers' reception of this new stage in their professional development "has actually been very, very good."

But some members of the board of trustees have not been infected with quite the same fervor for technology, and they have some nagging questions. Trustee Ted Whatley says he's concerned about the ongoing financial commitment the plan requires, which will necessarily detract from the support the board can give to teacher salaries. Even vice president Carlson (local IBM head honcho), who favors the proposal in general, says he thinks there'll be some "surprises" (not good ones) in the cost involved.

And Trustee Geoff Rips is troubled, he says, that it still has not been explained to him what's necessary and what's sufficient in the proposal. "And they haven't presented a clear picture of what it's going to do to educate kids in this district," he says.

Albert Cortez questions AISD's technology plan at a board meeting
Trustee Rudy Montoya, too, is of the opinion that trustees haven't been presented with an adequate model for technology, and unless he's shown differently, what's currently on the drawing board has more capacity than AISD really needs. "I would like to know what other districts are doing," he says. Albert Cortez, who like Montoya manages technology at the Attorney General's office, has recently appeared on the scene as a vocal citizen/critic. He agrees that the district's analysis of the plan has been insufficient. $50 million is a lot of money to pay for technology that the telecommunications companies may one day furnish to users for free, he says.

Always quick with a response, Fox answers with his usual confident authority. "That argument is why we're 10 years behind in this district, in terms of technology," he fires back. "This district has had the attitude that people are going to give the school district first-rate technology for the last 10 years."

Foxy Style

Fox is right about that: Technology has been donated piecemeal for years to AISD -- but not equitably. Fox's plan for technology, he never fails to remind one and all, will bring equity to all children.

Cripes! We've heard this already, his critics complain. He has a penchant for delivering these canned speeches... speaking to adults as though they were children... no, worse than to children -- at least he respects children. It now has assumed the status of common wisdom in Austin: In spite of his crusty exterior, Fox cares passionately about children and doesn't want their education to be shortchanged.

"I wish he would show more day-in and day-out compassion for adults," notes board president Rider. Adds Hartman: "He needs to relate to people so that they aren't offended, so they feel that there's a conversation, instead of a `talking to.'"

"His answers, sometimes, are too pat," agrees Gloria Neunaber, a longtime parent volunteer and activist in AISD. "My fear is that he's so tuned into changing things that he forgets to appreciate the good things that are already going on here."

Yes, Fox's veiled heart and obviously intelligent mind are probably in the right place. It's his style with which Austinites are still struggling. But then, the know-it-all Fox realizes that. He's just got more important things on his mind.

"I focus on things that I believe will be of long-term benefit for the district," he says. "My overall objective is that, 10, 15, 20 years from now, after I'm gone, that people will look back and generally agree -- whether they like me or not -- that we created a much better learning atmosphere in this district than when I came."

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle