Gary Norris' white hair is always neatly coiffed, and his dark suits are plain but precision-pressed. The Sarasota Schools superintendent spent most of his life and career in small-town Kansas, where he raised two children with his wife of 33 years. Norris, 55, sings as a soloist at Sarasota Baptist Church, sits on the board of the United Way, and professes as hobbies-among others-church music, home improvement, bicycling and golfing. He likes to drink Diet Dr Pepper at work.
The walls in his conference room on the third floor of the school district headquarters at The Landings are plastered with memorabilia, including a photo of Norris with Steve Forbes and another one of him with Jesse Jackson. Among the memorabilia is a sign that reads, "You're not in Kansas anymore"-a reference to the 7,500-student district in Salina, Kan., where he was most recently superintendent.
There is little drama or passion in his explanation about what made him become a school administrator. Boy Scout leadership experiences, a superintendent uncle as role model, and six years of providing kids a "hook" to education through his teaching of music drew him into this career. That's it.
When asked about his childhood, he matter-of-factly says he was born to German parents connected to a U.S. military base and was adopted at 28 days by his Army parents. His adoptive father later moved back to his home state of Kansas to become a carpenter and construction supervisor. Norris never got in touch with his biological parents again, and he grew up in Junction City as an only child. Period.
His public persona appears as if it was intentionally designed to trigger yawns rather than yells, and his career looks as exciting as a Ford Taurus. Norris' three-decade curriculum vitae as a schools administrator has "mainstream," "reliability," "efficiency" and "continuity" written all over it.
Yet the chief executive of the county's largest employer is probably the most controversial public figure in Sarasota since Katherine Harris.
Last year, he was the target of ongoing rank-and-file rebellions against what teachers decried as micromanagement and imposition. He was accused of political dishonesty before and during a school tax referendum. He presided over post-referendum teacher aide layoffs. In September 2006, he resigned over frustration that he couldn't accomplish the goals of his signature initiative, the Next Generation plan, telling district officials that working in Sarasota had been the most frustrating experience of his career. Two months later, after several groups implored him to stay, he retracted his resignation, causing more bad feelings. The board eventually renewed his new contract after some very public back-and-forth over a raise, which didn't exactly raise Norris' popularity among taxpayers. And most recently, he has been attacked over what critics call irresponsible financial management.
All controversies came to a showdown just after the resignation and reconfirmation episode. At a Dec. 12, 2006 School Board meeting, a stone-faced Norris was forced to watch half a dozen critics parade to the lectern. Some of the three-minute statements by teachers and a former administrator were delivered with tears, some with rage.
Then three representatives of African-American community groups stepped up, urging board members to support Norris. Their main argument: Norris is the first superintendent who put closing the achievement gap and the interests of minorities on top of his priority list.
The school board eventually voted to renew his contract for another three years, and Norris, who wants to clear the air, agreed to talk about the main criticisms levied at him.
Norris is adamant about having done (almost) all the right things, and he holds up as his main achievement progress in minority student performance. His advocacy for more minority hiring and his rallying to an embattled African-American principal at Booker High School-the county's secondary school with the highest black student share-are at the roots of the strong support he enjoys among African-American activists.
"I believe he is the right man in the right position," says Gregory Harris, pastor of Truevine Missionary Baptist Church in Newtown. "He has led this district in a Herculean way, and he's beginning to close the achievement gap."
It was the achievement gap and a large population of poor students that drew him to Sarasota in the first place. After running a small-town district of 7,500 students for a decade, he says he was ready for the challenges of a bigger school district. And Sarasota district officials had put closing the achievement gap on a list of priorities.
Walking back and forth from a paper board to a whiteboard, drawing tables and diagrams, Norris presents himself as someone who is fighting to help disadvantaged students get better chances in life, and as being on the cutting edge of the outcomes and standardization movements in education.
"The real passion I've developed is making sure we have an education system that advances learning enough for all children so they can be successful," he says. "It's rooted in economics, but it's also rooted in equity."
But while Norris likes to talk about what he wants to accomplish, his critics talk mainly about how he is doing it.
Jan Gibbs, who retired in 2005 after 20 years as principal of Booker High School, appreciates Norris' mission to raise scores, particularly among minority students, but she calls his management style "my way or the highway."
"His style is not compatible with this community and the school district," Gibbs says. "I think it's because he came from a much smaller district. He was used to being a one-man show. He's not used to shared decision-making, which has been the culture of the [school] board ever since I've been here. He was losing that good thing by the way he managed everything. He didn't seek [teachers'] input. He didn't seek principals' input. We've spent years decentralizing the school system. You don't come in and change things in one year without having a grasp of the culture."
Norris counters that, as one of his first tasks, he was forced to impose more centralization. When he arrived, he found-much to his surprise-what he describes as an extremely decentralized system with too much autonomy for principals. The intent was not to move the district to the dictatorial side of the spectrum, but to get it closer to the middle, he says.
"Although it must feel like micromanaging, I'm not a micromanager," he says. "I believe the schools that are most successful are tight on standards but loose on how they get there. But when I got to Sarasota, we had become a system of schools, not a school system. We had schools using different textbooks across the district. We even had departments within schools using different textbooks. I would argue that we were probably one of the school systems in America that was furthest on the loose side."
Norris believes teacher opposition against his standardization and technology initiatives is mainly fed by general dislike of change, a "feeling of being overwhelmed," or other non-student-related issues.
"A lot of people don't want to see change in education. Let's leave it at this. That's the root of almost all of this," he says.
The darkest cloud hanging above Norris' head is the perception that he misled voters before the March 2006 school tax referendum. Instead of telling the public that enrollment numbers were down and that he was going to have to make staff cuts, he was intentionally silent, worried the cuts would make voters assume the referendum dollars wouldn't be needed if fewer students were enrolling.
Gibbs, the retired principal, says she fears voters were turned off by the circumstances and may vote no the next time the referendum comes around.
Norris says that's not the whole story. He says that in December 2005, as a result of falling student numbers, he suggested to the principals the school district should consider a hiring freeze. But he let himself be convinced otherwise. That's the only part he is sorry about. He imposed a 2-percent budget holdback instead and told principals to spend conservatively for the remainder of the year.
For the 84 teacher aides who lost their jobs two months after the referendum, he blames the "shared-decision-making teams," made up of school principals and the superintendent. The principals, he says, sacrificed the aides, because they were intent on not putting teacher jobs on the line, even though there had been enough resignations to avoid layoffs.
And he defends the results. "There hasn't been one dollar spent differently than we promised the public," he says. "It has been the most disturbing time in my life that people are now accusing me of misleading people about the referendum. I must have made 100 referendum presentations and distributed thousands of brochures. There was not one word out of my mouth that was untrue.
"Anyone who read the newspaper knew that our student enrollment was way off projections," Norris continues. "I assumed it was common knowledge."
And today, all but 15 of the teacher aides have been hired back. "I have already apologized publicly," Norris says. "I have already said that I regretted not standing up for what I personally believed in, the hiring freeze."
The other episode that caused irritation was his resignation and subsequent decision to continue for another three years, followed by haggling over a raise. Critics assume Norris used the resignation as a tactical move to fortify his position.
He counters he truly was in despair around September 2006 over a series of "roadblocks" to his Next Generation plan.
"I was in total frustration about everything I believed in and everything the board wanted me to do, and was becoming more doubtful each and every day," he says. "By Sept. 21 I had gotten to a point where I thought, 'I'm not going to be able to do the very thing I was hired to do.' I had no thought whatsoever that I would return, no desire to return. I was just focused on my family and on my next position."
But by October, he says, different groups began talking to him, and in November he had informal meetings with two new school board members. By November, it became clear the two new members would support him, assuring him a 3-2 vote. When he handed the five school board members a list of problems and possible solutions he titled "roadblocks and remedies," they reacted positively, he says.
As to his salary, Norris asked the board to bring in an independent consultant to determine whether it was competitive. The board turned the request down, but granted him in January a 5 percent raise to $172,662 (Norris had passed on that raise in the previous year), plus a 7 percent performance-based bonus.
Does it take chutzpah to ask for a raise in such an embattled situation?
In control of his movements throughout most of the interview, he nervously fiddles with whiteboard markers while talking about salary issues.
Says Norris: "I know there are detractors out there that want to punish me. The only thing I've ever asked is that I have a fair salary and a fair contract. It's pretty easy to look around and see what the market forces are for superintendent salaries. I'll leave it at that."
The newest frontline in the war surrounding the superintendent is about dollars and cents.
At the Dec. 12 school board meeting, Richard Hays, an assistant superintendent under Norris' predecessor Wilma Hamilton and a Norris competitor for the superintendent job, went public with his fears that the school district might face a $20 million gap sometime in 2007. Painful cuts such as layoffs would be unavoidable, if Hays is right.
But Hays is dead wrong, Norris insists. "I have no idea where he got the $20 million," he says.
Hays, a former Tulane University economics professor, followed up with an op-ed piece in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. In the column, he laid out in detail his criticism of Norris' administration, accusing the district of having a "bad case of addiction" to deficit spending. In the past three years, the district spent $25.6 million more than it earned, Hays wrote.
While Hays predicted the district would soon be financially between a rock and hard place, Norris says this is entirely untrue.
"There is NO emergency. This school district is fiscally sound!," Norris wrote in a response.
The controversy is centered on the district's reserves fund. The school board members held Norris' feet to the fire at a budget workshop in January, insisting that the school year must end with 8 to 10 percent in reserves.
Norris contends that, for technical reasons, the lower-end benchmark figure given by the board is actually 7.5 percent. And reaching this, he says, is no problem at all.
How much reserves the school district needs is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. In fact, Sarasota's 7.5 percent reserves are higher than those of most neighboring counties. But, more than anything, critics are irked by what they perceive as Norris misleading the board with moving-target spending figures that tend to go up, rather than down.
"I've heard that said," Norris counters, contending that critics expect him to produce exact figures. This is near impossible, he says, because the budget is based on too many moving parts.
Today, Norris comes across as a man who sees himself on a mission with a lot of resistance to overcome.
But there also seems to be some recognition that it's mainly his style that's at issue. As part of his plan of getting things done in the next three years, he promises better communication.
Says Norris: "I'm going to go out to the schools in the next few months, and I'm going to do a lot of listening, before school, after school, during lunch period. I'll make myself available."
He's presented a "roadblocks and remedies" memo, and has had conversations with board members. Community groups loudly supporting his goals, as well as a "creative" new union contract that recognizes the need for more centralization, he says, led him to believe that he could return to his mission.
What does he expect for the next three years?
"A lot of hard work. I routinely work a 60-70 hours a week schedule. I expect to continue that," Norris says. "I expect to do my very best job of communicating with internal audiences as well as external audiences. I look forward to getting beyond this split board, and working closely with the majority and the minority of the board and trying to accomplish their goals."