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Lessons Learned?

In his last interview before suspension, schools chief Russo discusses his style, his record and those “horrific” rumors.

By Richard Foster

This version has been amended from the print edition to include updated information from School Board Chair Beverly Cocke and to correct that Patrick Russo worked as a referee, not a coach. -- Editor

Having refereed NCAA Division I college basketball for more than 20 years, Patrick Russo is no stranger to having his judgment questioned.

“I’m not driven by the fact that I want people to respect me,” said the embattled Henrico County schools superintendent, in his last interview before his abrupt suspension from the job in August.

“I’d like to have people like me. I’d love to have that, but … my job is to call the game correctly,” Russo went on, speaking of his part-time gig refereeing for the Colonial Athletic Association until 2004. “My job is to leave there with the coaches feeling it was a fairly called game with no favoritism and that the kids got the best effort they can.”

But everybody hates the ref. At least until he makes a call they like.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, in that case, that even one of Russo’s biggest boosters, Henrico County School Board Chair Beverly L. Cocke, said about Russo in July: “Either they love him or they hate him. … He’s not going to play in the middle. He’s going to tell you how he really feels when things need to be done, whether you like it or not. … He doesn’t shy away from tough decisions.”

Amid deliberating whether to extend Russo’s contract, the county school board placed Russo on paid leave in early August, pending an investigation into concerns brought to the board about Russo.

Local press reports stated that the investigation centered around emails sent between Russo and county school board member Diana Winston and her husband Joe Winston.
The school board has asked Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon L. Taylor to review whether there is any conflict of interest between Henrico County Public Schools and Joe Winston’s promotional materials business, TechnoMarketing Inc., Cocke told Henrico Monthly.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch revealed that Russo was close friends with the Winstons and that the county school system has spent at least $130,000 with Joe Winston’s promotional materials business over the last decade. However, that business relationship predates both Winston’s term on the school board, which started in 2007, and Russo’s tenure as superintendent, which began in 2009.

During the same closed-session board meeting at which Russo was suspended, Diana Winston walked out, stating that she was quitting the board.
In her resignation letter, Winston defended herself and her husband as being ethically “upstanding citizens of this county” and wrote that she was stepping down because “there is not enough time to worry about the misinformation of disgruntled ex-employees or past school board members reported by journalists interested in sensationalism and not accuracy. They need to ‘get a life.’”

The drama followed months of turbulent press accounts of school employees upset with Russo’s management style and questions about turnover in the county school system.

Behind the scenes, Russo’s detractors have been anonymously leaking information and passing ugly rumors about him to the press. Richmond Times-Dispatch forums are full of angry accusations about him. At least one Facebook group page and one Twitter account are devoted to airing accounts of alleged abuses by Russo and the school system, none easily verifiable.

Just two weeks before Russo was put on paid leave, he sat down in his office to tell his side of things in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Henrico Monthly. Among other topics, he discussed his tenure in Henrico and the whisper campaign that has plagued it.

“Frankly I believe what’s driving some of this is just a very mean attempt on some people’s part to undermine certain things that I’ve been doing here, and I don’t think that’s fair,” Russo said of the orchestrated movement against him. “I’ve seen some emails … it’s almost horrific that people would say this and be so mean and so devastatingly hurtful to someone.”

Russo said he and his spokesman, Andy Jenks, have seen some of the anonymous materials that have been leaked to the press about him, which range from claims that there was abnormally high turnover among county school principals to allegations that Russo moved a principal because Russo’s son didn’t make the soccer team--the latter claim the superintendent both vehemently denied and dismissed as ridiculous. “That’s very hurtful,” Russo said. “You mess with me; you don’t mess with my family.”

So how did it come to this?

Controversy tends to follow Russo, who’s known as uncompromising when it comes to demanding excellence from staff and students. “I don’t do anything to polarize, frankly. I don’t do anything to provoke,” he said. “The best thing that can happen to me is that everything functions well, everything runs smooth, you don’t have any controversy. I don’t like controversy. Never have. But sometimes you’ve got to do what’s right.”

A Long Island native, Russo, 62, has been a superintendent for 28 years and has spent 38 years in education. He started out as a business teacher in Long Island and has served as a superintendent in localities in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. He and his wife, Brooke, a nursing instructor at John Tyler Community College, are the parents of 14-year-old twin son and daughter Patrick and Ashley, who are ninth graders at Glen Allen High School.

Before coming to Henrico, Russo was in Hampton, where local school board chair Martha Mugler says Russo was a visible, accessible “strong superintendent” who increased student achievement and parental involvement and brought the systems’ struggling schools to almost 100 percent accreditation.

Russo also introduced metrics with quantifiable goals for staff achievement. He was known, one source says, for telling low performers that if they didn’t do their job well, he could find someone else who would. It’s a statement Russo says he can’t say he’s never said.

“He holds people accountable. He would give goals that need to be met and he would give you a time period to meet those goals. The parents loved him because they were getting good results,” says Hampton school board member Lenny Routon. But among the staff and central office administration, “there was some pushback there. [People] don’t like change, but in a world where student achievement should come first, you have to hold some people accountable.”

Russo resigned from Hampton in 2008 after board members told him they didn’t plan to renew his contract. That decision was largely made, some say, on the basis of a performance survey that showed that many central office administrators were dissatisfied with Russo’s leadership. (Russo just recently settled a long-running, fierce legal battle with the Hampton board over disputed retirement funds, which he says was based “philosophical” differences, but was not personal, as he remains on friendly terms with many board members.)

Speaking about the Hampton survey, Russo said it showed that “40 percent of those in the central office were a little bit uneasy. Well that was 60 percent that were still pretty agreeable … and I think the lowest we did with parents was in the 70s. I bet President Obama would take those numbers right now.”

In Henrico, Russo received 89 percent parent approval in a survey conducted last year. He has been a visible, accessible superintendent who twice a year visits every one of the system’s 71 schools and speaks personally with every fifth-grade, eighth grade and senior student class. He holds regular open performance meetings with each school.

Under Russo’s tenure, graduation rates are up in Henrico, school accreditations remain high and truancy and suspensions have decreased significantly. Six schools were named to Newsweek’s “Best High Schools” list in 2013. Henrico has opened up two advanced academies at Tucker and Highland Springs that allow students to earn an associate degree with their high school diploma. Russo’s been working on opening a new STEM center and has been overseeing a much-needed upgrade of the system’s technology network infrastructure.

So why all the sturm und drang?

In many respects, it seems it comes down to changing demographics and economics combined with Russo’s and the school board’s high expectations for employee performance.

The economy crashed shortly before Russo took over in Henrico. Since 2009, he’s had to find $70 million in cuts from the school-system budget, a process he calls “gut-wrenching.” “There isn’t much to cut,” he went on. “We are lean. We are as lean as we can get. We’ve reduced over 200 positions and again nobody’s lost any jobs. We’ve done that through attrition.”

Henrico schools employees received just one small raise in the last five years; teachers on average receive the 16th-highest salary among Virginia localities, which Russo called competitive with similar systems.

Teachers have complained at board meetings and in emails to the school administration that they’re not being paid enough to keep up with the cost of living. Some teachers argued that the school system should have invested in teacher raises rather than spending $17.6 million to buy 19,000 new laptops for Henrico’s one-to-one student laptop initiative, the largest of its kind in the world. (Stressing there was no tension between his office and the superintendent, County Administrator John Vithoulkas put a pause on that plan after complaints it had been implemented without sufficient public review; another vote followed a few weeks later and the initiative passed.)

The notion that the laptop money could instead have been spent on raises was a fallacy, Russo said, because it was already earmarked and the county couldn’t give raises across the board to teachers without doing it for every other county employee. But more importantly, Russo added, the students need their laptops to remain competitive and prepared for college.

“It hurts me deeply,” Russo said, “that we haven’t been able to do as much for our staff because they’ve worked so hard under very trying situations, being asked to do more -- higher class sizes, less resources -- and we’re still asking you to perform at a high level and that’s frustrating. And that’s where the low morale comes in. … For the four years I’ve been here our morale has not been what it should be. We’ve had to prioritize the things we want to reduce, not the things we want to invest in education.”

The system is facing a $22 million deficit in its next budget and if county voters don’t pass a meals-tax referendum this fall, Russo said he’s not sure how the system will bear it: “I don’t want to lose positions. I want to make sure everybody has a job next year. Frankly some people disagree [with Russo’s budgetary choices] because they think there should be raises. I don’t begrudge them. I understand and respect that. But my first responsibility is to our kids.”

But not everyone thinks he’s doing the best job with that responsibility. Former School Board member Kay Sears, for instance, was rankled by the fact that Russo and the current board did away with a program for at-risk middle-school students.

Also during Russo’s tenure, the county school demographics changed “tremendously,” Russo said. “We’re [now] a majority minority system. For the first time we’re at 40 percent reduced lunch. People don’t think of Henrico as [we] have that much poverty.”

And that has driven some of the turnover among principals, in addition to retirements and people looking for advancement opportunities outside the school system, say Russo and Cocke. The school board has charged Russo with closing the achievement gap between the system’s minority students and whites. As part of doing that, he required several longtime principals at successful school to move to lower-performing schools.

“He’s not moving people around arbitrarily. He’s matching up a person’s skill set to the right school,” says Cocke, noting that one relocated principal has started an innovative program to boost reading skills by using iPads.

Others have criticized Russo for being too willing to jettison longtime employees.

Timothy Mertz, the school system’s former director of school nutrition who left in 2011, was quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as saying, “Under Russo, there’s no such thing as a long-term employee.”

Russo dismissed that charge, saying turnover isn’t much different at Henrico than it is at other similar systems nationwide. Every school employee is given every opportunity to reach realistically achievable goals under his administration, he added, but he will also support principals when they think a teacher isn’t performing and their contract shouldn’t be renewed.

“I’m going to be supportive of the principals who feel a very small number of teachers may not be functioning well in their schools,” Russo said. “I’ve said to principals if you had a teacher that wasn’t functioning well in the classroom … why would you put someone else’s kids in there if you wouldn’t put your own? … You work with that teacher, you give them feedback, you work with them to provide improvement but at some point you say it’s not working out, not out of consideration for you to have a job, but for the children to have the best administrator or teacher, that decision’s got to be made and I think that’s a healthy environment.”

Henrico will most likely be Russo’s last job as superintendent. Before the board put him on paid leave, Russo planned to retire after finishing his tenure here.

Some of his most ardent supporters have distanced themselves from him slightly following the latest brouhaha.

Speaking about how her feelings for Russo may have changed following recent events, Cocke said, “We know that the school system is not defined by one person but rather by the dedication of each and every employee to the children of our county. … Henrico County Public Schools is a family and we are staying true to our focus … that we want every child to become successful adults. … We want each child to reach their fullest potential. … And we look forward to a successful new school year.”

As for Russo, it would have been easy many times for him not to speak up or cause waves, he said in his Henrico Monthly interview, but it’s just not in his personality: “I hope my legacy will be that he did what was right for kids and put his own personal well-being above anything that was not the right thing for children.

“My loyalty is to my kids, the children … the school board … [and] the people who work in the system that have a vision for excellence. I’m willing to work with everybody. The best thing I can do is to have a quiet year … but this is a very complex organization. We’ve got almost 10,000 part-time and full-time employees and 50,000 kids and 90,000 parents. So I mean, when you talk about trying to please everybody, it’s the old saying: When you try to please everybody, you please no one.

“My focus and my commitment until I retire will be on the children in the school system and … [they] will be the consideration for everything we do.”