Romules Durant is attracting plenty of attention around Toledo. So is his lapel pin.
At an ice cream parlor, a customer exclaims by way of identification: “Macomber ’89!” Walking along a city street, he hears a shout from a passing car: “Bowsher ’88!”
As people approach Mr. Durant (Waite ’94), they read the slogan on the brightly colored pin attached to his suit jacket: “TPS Proud.”
It isn’t surprising that Mr. Durant, who takes over Aug. 1 as interim superintendent of Toledo Public Schools, has made himself a walking advertisement for the district. But the enthusiasm he expresses about the school system, and his place in it, isn’t just a marketing gimmick.
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“I’m proud to be here, proud to be a product of TPS,” Mr. Durant told me. “I’m driven to offer our students an educational process that extends from the cradle to getting them ready for college and careers. We’re looking to implement a lot of change. Our schools are a platform for revitalizing our city.”
Mr. Durant has spent his entire professional career with TPS, as teacher, principal, and now assistant superintendent. When he succeeds retiring superintendent Jerome Pecko this summer, Mr. Durant will hold a one-year appointment to the top job. The Board of Education is deciding whether it will consider other candidates for the permanent post during his interim tenure.
But Mr. Durant already has shown that he has no intention of being a lame duck. He’s at the bargaining table as TPS negotiates new contracts with its employee unions. He says he intends to maintain his focus on boosting parents’ involvement in the education of their children.
He’s the district’s point person for a new Lucas County program aimed at improving the school performance of young people in foster care. He represents TPS in a citywide initiative that seeks to shield children from the health hazards of lead-based paint.
Last month, Mr. Durant presided over a scholarship banquet on the University of Toledo campus for nearly 600 students in the TPS chapters of the Student African American Brotherhood and its affiliate, Young Women of Excellence. Both organizations seek to instill leadership, academic, and social skills in young people, especially black students. The two groups soon will unite under the title “The Family.”
Mr. Durant has built TPS’ branch of the brotherhood into the nation’s largest kindergarten-through-12th-grade chapter. In some city neighborhoods, it’s become an effective antidote to gang membership. At the banquet, students mobbed Mr. Durant, hugging him and seeking to have their pictures taken with him.
I remain somewhat apprehensive about Mr. Durant’s relative youth (he’s 37) and his lack of experience running a school district. If energy and sincerity can get the job done, though, he appears more than qualified.
School board president Brenda Hill says Mr. Durant’s East Toledo roots are an advantage in his new post. “People are saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got a homegrown superintendent,” she says. “There’s respect for the local person.”
These are troubled times for TPS. The district will learn this month whether state government will start to restore, in its new budget, the massive aid slashes it inflicted on TPS and other public school systems in the current budget. The budget sequester in Washington could cost the district millions of dollars in federal aid.
Right-wing activists are using the findings of a dubious “performance audit” of the district to demand big spending cuts. Federal officials have rejected TPS’ application to run the local Head Start preschool program, although district officials say they’re not giving up. Students continue to leave TPS for charter and private schools, even though the exodus appears to have slowed.
The district needs to reverse last year’s decline in overall academic performance on its state report card, from “continuous improvement” to “academic watch” — the equivalent of dropping from a grade of C to D. Mr. Durant says he’s confident TPS will recover; his key role in helping to develop and execute the district’s reform plan lends credibility to that assertion.
“You’re going to see an increase in the next report, back to continuous improvement,” he pledged. “We’ve had a lot of change with our transformation plan, but we’re seeing a rebound. The vision is getting carried out in the classroom. All the key pieces are in place.”
Mr. Durant will face his greatest challenge this fall, when he will lead a campaign to persuade TPS voters to renew a property tax levy that school officials say they must have to keep the district solvent. Last year, city voters trounced a proposed TPS tax increase.
The superintendent-elect concedes that a successful vote will rely largely on his ability to nurture public trust. He’s already trying out his sales pitch at church services and community events throughout the city.
The goodwill Mr. Durant has built — from his days as a hard-hitting defender on the UT football team in the late 1990s to his more recent work creating partnerships between TPS and other local institutions such as United Way of Greater Toledo — will be a valuable asset in the millage campaign.
Mr. Durant says many of the people he meets ask for a TPS lapel pin like his.
“That starts the conversation,” Mr. Durant says. “Then we tell our story, explain what it means to be TPS proud.”
He says he’s well aware of the high stakes in the tax campaign, and in his performance in his new job.
“The image of the city is not going to change,” he says, “if the image of the district does not change.”
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dkushma1