In a matter of hours, the new superintendent’s fate turned from imperiled to “looking very good,” as he won over a skeptical mayor.
Schools Superintendent Garth Harries, who began his job in July, Friday morning saw his future prospects in the post shaken by a surprise announcement by Mayor Toni Harp: Harp told news reporters that she would not support renewing Harries’ contract until he gets his budget house in order.
The Board of Education is scheduled to vote by March 1 on whether to renew Harries’ contract. Speaking just after an 11 a.m. Friday press conference, Harp said she could not support renewing his contract at that time, but would consider it in May.
Her off-the-cuff remarks sent shockwaves through the city, casting doubt not only over the future of Harries’ career but over the future of the four-year-old school change initiative he has designed and led.
Then Harries showed up at City Hall at 4 p.m. for a regularly scheduled meeting with Harp. They talked for an hour, mostly about the budget.
The pair emerged at 5 p.m., smiling.
Harp announced a change of heart: She said she would not block Harries’ March renewal—indeed, she said, she acknowledged that she may not even be able to do that. The March 1 deadline is encoded in his contract, and Harp is just one vote on the eight-person school board.
“The board has a process,” she said. “I’m not going to interfere.”
“It’s looking very good for him,” Harp said of Harries’ prospects for renewal. “I enjoy working with him.”
“And so do I,” Harries replied.
Harp explained her change of tune: She said she previously had become very concerned after reading an audit of last fiscal year’s budget, which showed the school board running up a $9 million deficit in food services and daycare costs. She said she was concerned that that $9 million hole would carry over into this year’s budget.
Harp said she later learned more about that $9 million hole. It represents past debts for funds that are not part of the operating budget, she said. And she learned that “there was a plan to address it, and I wasn’t aware of that plan.”
As of early December, the school district’s budget deficit stood at $3.5 million. Harries said he shares Harp’s concern about the budget and has been whittling away at that number since then.
“He assured me that he will use everything in his power” to close the gap, Harp said. “I’m convinced that we will end the year in the black” for the schools budget.