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Published: Saturday, 2/24/2007

TPS pick went from military to education

William Harner, the candidate who has been chosen to head the Toledo Public Schools system, introduces himself to Toledoans Jesus Avila, 8, Jessa Avila, 10, their mom, Tammy Avila, and Sierra Avila, 15, at a recent reception at Waite Brand mAuditorium. William Harner, the candidate who has been chosen to head the Toledo Public Schools system, introduces himself to Toledoans Jesus Avila, 8, Jessa Avila, 10, their mom, Tammy Avila, and Sierra Avila, 15, at a recent reception at Waite Brand mAuditorium.

John Stanford, a former Army major general, became one of only a few big-district superintendents without a background in education when the Seattle School Board recruited him in 1995.

That same year, William Harner was stationed in Seoul as the military liaison between the Department of Defense and South Korea's military. Mr. Harner - who was selected Tuesday night to be the new superintendent of Toledo Public Schools - read an article about Mr. Stanford's incursion into public education.

"John Stanford became sort of my role model," Mr. Harner, who once was the head cheerleader at West Point and retired in 1998 as an Army lieutenant colonel, told The Blade in an interview.

Like Mr. Stanford, Mr. Harner made the transition from "Sir, yes sir!" to "Where's your hall pass?"

The Toledo Board of Education, which oversees the largest school system in northwest Ohio, conducted a national search before selecting Mr. Harner. His experience includes the superintendency of the 63,000-student Greenville County, South Carolina, school system from 2000 to April, 2004.

Mr. Harner said he plans to leave his job as a regional superintendent and special assistant to Paul Vallas, chief executive of the Philadelphia School District, to take the Toledo job.

Hiring him to head TPS is contingent on successfully negotiating his contract and an economic package. Former Superintendent Eugene Sanders received a base salary of more than $147,700 and a total compensation package worth nearly $200,000.

Interim Superintendent John Foley - who was passed over by the TPS board along with finalist Thomas Maher, statewide project director for the Florida Department of Education - is paid $130,000 in base salary plus other benefits.

Harner Harner

Steven Steel, Toledo Board of Education vice president, said the board would discuss its plan for negotiating during its regular meeting tomorrow night.

If the negotiations are successful and Mr. Harner inks a contract with TPS, the 29,400-student district will join the ranks of other urban school systems that have turned to a former military officer for leadership.

Alan Shoho, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who teaches educational leadership, said large school systems looking to accelerate reform have sometimes picked administrators from other fields, including the military, business, and politics.

"Over the past decade or so, a lot of big cities have gone to that kind of model," he said.

Military officers are often perceived as having great leadership qualities, but those skills don't always translate well into public education, Mr. Shoho added.

Mr. Stanford, who died of leukemia on Nov. 28, 1998, was highly regarded, known for shaking up the Seattle school district, and became the model for many nontraditional superintendents, the professor said.

"Without knowing [Mr. Harner's] background, his biggest challenge is going to be credibility among educators," he said. "I'm sure he is going to have a very short honeymoon among educators."

Francine Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers union, said Mr. Harner appears willing to work with the district's unions and thinks they will have a good working relationship.

"I believe his selection provides an opportunity for the district to move in a different direction and establish credibility with our parents, the citizens, and community leaders that will enable us to eventually pass a tax levy," Ms. Lawrence said. "His nontraditional background should bring fresh thinking to school governance."

Mr. Harner, 50, told The Blade the TPS unions will be a strength.

"In Greenville, our teachers weren't organized and I had to organize them," he said. "By my third year, the lead teacher in every school had to sign off on a recommendation on how to build the budget and what the priorities should be."

Thomas Glass, professor of educational leadership at the University of Memphis, said hiring military officers as superintendents was "in style a few years ago," but he believes the trend has died down.

"Sometimes they are grasping for straws," Mr. Glass said of school boards that hire nontraditional superintendents.

Mr. Harner's career in public education started on the fast track. The day after retiring from his 20-year Army career, Mr. Harner said he was "wearing a white shirt and tie [and] walking the hallways" as principal of a South Carolina high school.

Mr. Harner said he pushed for more rigorous courses for students and more training for teachers as principal of Hilton Head High School, where he increased the number of Advanced Placement tests taken from 147 to 350 in the first year.

After just two years of running the high school in Hilton Head, he was hired to run the Greenville school system, the largest in South Carolina.

By the end of his first week in Greenville, Mr. Harner had confirmed recommendations made months before and cut 37 positions from the budget the following week.

"Not a single person was laid off. ... We reassigned them and put them into the vacancies," he said.

Within two years, 100 positions were eliminated from the central office staff. In his third year, with the district facing a $28 million deficit, he slashed five of his 10 assistant superintendents and turned down a pay raise for himself, he said.

"As we flattened the organization - reducing the district staff, however we did not lay off anybody," he said. "We used savings to hire [early childhood] teachers and keep class size relatively steady given repeated state midyear budget cuts."

Toledo Public school board members said Mr. Harner was their top pick because of his experience addressing large budget deficits and raising test scores, especially for minority students.

His military history was a bonus, said board member Robert Torres, a former Marine.

"It wasn't the overriding factor," Mr. Torres said. "Like my colleagues, there were a number of characteristics about Dr. Harner that amplified support for his candidacy."

Mr. Harner grew up in Cheltenham Township, Pa., outside Philadelphia, where his father was chief of police. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he was head cheerleader.

Mr. Harner later received three master's degrees and a doctoral degree in educational leadership from the University of South Carolina.

As superintendent in Greenville, he started a program in which teachers and administrators were able to pursue tuition-free master's and doctoral programs. Mr. Harner said he also saw a 12-point increase in SAT scores in Greenville and increases in Advanced Placement enrollment.

The Greenville school board ended Mr. Harner's tenure by buying out his contract. He was paid two months' salary and benefits after his termination and he sacrificed the final year of his contract. His annual base salary was $163,532, district spokesman Oby Lyles said.

Before the buyout, Mr. Harner pointed out, his contract was extended twice by the school board and he received three excellent performance evaluations.

After leaving Greenville, Mr. Harner took a job as a middle school principal and director of secondary education programs in the 5,500-student Gainesville, Ga., school district. Two years later, he took the Philadelphia job.

The last Toledo Public superintendent with military experience was Hugh Caumartin, who led the school system from 1981 to 1985, district records show.

Mr. Caumartin, who is now superintendent for Bowling Green schools, was a Marine lieutenant, platoon leader, and later a company commander in Vietnam.

Other military officers who became superintendents of major public school systems include:

•Julius Becton, Jr., a former Army General, was superintendent in Washington from 1996 to 1998.

•John Fryer, a former Air Force major general who was superintendent in Jacksonville, Fla., from 1998 to 2005.

•Alphonse Davis, a former Marine colonel who was superintendent in New Orleans from 1999 to 2002.

•John O'Sullivan, a former Air Force colonel who was superintendent in Savannah, Ga., from 2001 to 2004 and in Osesso, Minn., from May, 2005, to February, 2006. Mr. O'Sullivan, who was bought out early from both of those school districts, was one of the 22 original applicants for the Toledo superintendency.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:


or 419-724-6171.

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