Mayors and Schools: The Louisville Handshake

Mayor Greg Fisher develops a compact with the superintendent of schools to ensure mutual accountability and alignment.

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Editor's note: Converge is revisiting former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s field trip across the country to learn about the complex relationships between mayors and urban school systems.

When Greg Fisher became Mayor of Louisville in 2011, the relationship between the city’s school board and superintendent was deeply strained, and a lot of people in town were saying it was time for the mayor to take control of the schools.

Those advising Fisher weren’t so sure, including his Director of Public Policy Tony Peyton, who had spent more than a decade seeing education around the country up close in his work at the National Center for Family Literacy.

“We just didn’t see a lot of data that full mayoral control led to significant results,” said Peyton, now program director at Louisville’s CE&S Foundation. “We thought it was more important to change the conversation about kids.”

Mayor Fisher came into office with deep management experience from a successful career in business. He called on this background to start his work by sharpening the focus on how existing youth services are delivered, directing an inventory of the parts of city government he controlled that had an impact on youth.

“Regardless of our official role with schools,” Peyton said, “we realized city government had a huge impact on our kids' lives. We had eight pages of connections, from the police summer camp, to our Office of Community Service’s three scholarship programs, our Health Department’s home visiting program and even the prioritization our public works department does for school bus routes when it snows.

“This started to change the language of the discussion about the city and schools, and we developed a consensus that the whole community could be engaged in proactively improving achievement. People realized a lot may happen in school, but it also happens on the way to school and after school on the playground.” Fisher borrowed an idea from Miami, where Mayor Manny Diaz developed a compact with the school system. Fisher and the independent school board in Louisville made a written commitment to each other that, in Fisher’s words, “…showed a respect for each other. We both said, ‘Please hold us accountable for our work.’ ”

Once a year the mayor would sit in front of the independent school board and report on the city’s compact commitments, and once a year the superintendent reported on school district progress in a meeting at a city-run community center.

The partnership deepened when a new superintendent was hired. The district asked Fisher to interview the three finalists, and the mayor now works closely with Jefferson County School Superintendent Donna Hargens.

“Instead of wasting time going to the legislature to try to get control of the schools,” Fisher said, “we built a trusting relationship that got things done.”

The mayor-superintendent relationship in Louisville appears far deeper than in many cities, although the goals of Fisher and his team appear less focused on direct education issues like a literacy strategy or school closures that I heard about in places like Boston or Chicago, where the mayor has direct governing authority over the district.

A subtle but important point that impacts how education partnerships work in Louisville is that the city and Jefferson County were combined into a merged government in 2003. This gives the mayor direct influence over many of the health and social services that mayors with independent counties cannot impact. Mayor-school relationships tend to be difficult to navigate, but Louisville, unlike many cities, has the authority to develop a unified youth agenda without being slowed by power and alignment difficulties between city and county government.

Joe Tolan, current president and CEO of the local Metro United Way, headed social services for the county before the consolidation with the city. He said the city-school compact would have been much more difficult if the county was still independent. “If the mayor came in with his cabinet and wanted to take over, it would have been a real battle,” he said. He noted the partnership would have been complicated because of political dynamics between a Democratic city and a Republican county. (Democrat Fisher, it should be noted, once ran for the Senate against the former Jefferson county administrator, Mitch McConnell.)

Three times during my discussions with Fisher’s team and his partners they drew almost identical maps about actions the community is taking to impact youth from birth to career. In the box for early childhood, they assigned responsibility to the United Way, education to the schools, out-of-school initiatives to the city and post-secondary tracks to a workforce board. Each time they showed this to me they finished by folding the ends of the paper together to form a cylinder; each person making the point that they see all these parts connected to each other. They are clearly using the same playbook — and folding it the same way, too.

Louisville also offers an interesting case study in how mayoral initiatives evolve through changes of administrations led by mayors with different styles and focuses. Fisher’s predecessor was high-profile Jerry Abramson, whose room-filling style and 21 years in office helped him earn the nickname, “Louisville’s Mayor for Life.” You can easily imagine him building partnerships through sheer force of will.

Fisher, by contrast, is warm, but more low key, and in only a few minutes, it is clear he has spent years studying how management systems in public and private sectors can get better results.

Abramson developed a very visible public initiative called 55,000 Degrees, which set the goal of producing 55,000 post-secondary graduates between 2010 and 2020. Fisher put his own twist on the 55,000 Degrees initiative, tasking his team with developing real-time career data to target specifically what type of degrees are needed for Louisville’s workforce goals. This is part of an exceptionally well-developed public-private pipeline linking schools to employers. Mayor Abramson led the effort to create the degree program; Mayor Fisher is building in concrete targets and metrics.

As I left Louisville deeply impressed by a body of work that aligns disparate forces to improve outcomes for kids, a question that I can’t yet answer remained: How much of this is a strategy of governance, and how much of this is Fisher? The answer is the key to whether an ecosystem built on the back of an exceptionally high functioning city government, led by a collaborative mayor who came into office with years of high-level management experience, will survive when a new mayor takes over.

This blog was originally posted on Living Cities.