Wayward Unified 

Superintendents often take the heat when school districts encounter tough times, but Joan Kowal's troubles in Hayward are deeper than that.

It was half past two on a school night, and the Hayward Board of Education was still in session. The crowd had been reduced from hundreds to a few dozen people, some of them dozing in the back row, the more resolute ones up in the front row still looking steely. Even the board members appeared a bit glassy-eyed.

The house was packed when the meeting started, but that was seven hours ago. Parents and teachers had filled the chambers and overflowed into a separate room where they watched the proceedings via video. Guards turned away stragglers. Inside, educators waving red signs that read "Listen 2 Teachers" excoriated the management practices of Dr. Joan Kowal, the district's superintendent. Dozens of parents called for her resignation. When the speeches grew so heated that board president Larry Booth felt compelled to admonish the crowd, "This is not a union rally," a mass of people rose to their feet to shout him down.

School board meetings in Hayward are like that these days.

In some ways, all unhappy school districts are the same. Like most of its Bay Area peers, the 25,000-student Hayward Unified School District has its troubles: Money is tight, standardized test scores are low, and the state is pushing for improvement. This autumn, the teachers union and the administration declared an impasse during contract negotiations. Yet until recently, Hayward was an oasis of relative tranquility. It was infamous neither for its student failure rate, as Oakland was; nor its financial scandals, as Emeryville was; nor its racial achievement gap, as Berkeley was. Hayward was so placid that two incumbents in last November's school board race went entirely unchallenged.

But this fall has been different, and the now-rancorous board meetings are only the tip of the iceberg. The past few months have left the district's morale in a shambles as its finances have very publicly been called into question. A senior district official, who was put on leave after criticizing the superintendent's management practices, unleashed a barn burner of a press release saying that the district fits most of the criteria for a state financial takeover. Hundreds of parents, students, and teachers have jammed school board meetings, loudly demanding Kowal's ouster. District teachers expressed no confidence in her by a 93 percent majority vote, and the office and technical employees union quickly followed suit. Even the Hayward Chamber of Commerce urged the district to submit its bookkeeping to an independent audit. There have been allegations of misspending, overspending, cronyism, retribution, and secret agendas. By the time the year is out, the district could be under the lens of no fewer than three separate audits, with its teacher turnover rate higher than ever, and its rapport with parents and the community shattered.

This storm swirls around Joan Kowal, who arrived in March 2001 from Palm Beach County, Florida. Public school superintendents such as Kowal are the fruit flies of the public education world -- often most notable for their remarkably short lifespans. It's not unusual for a top executive to take the heat when a district comes upon tough times, but in Hayward -- where the community has ardently questioned the superintendent's management style and chronicled her flaws all the way back to her employment in another state -- Kowal's problems run deeper than that.

Kowal, a nationally known career administrator, appealed to the five-member Hayward school board as someone who could bring the district's flagging test scores up to snuff. In many ways, she was an ideal candidate. She hailed from a much larger district that was nevertheless similar to Hayward: urban, racially and economically diverse, and home to a large Spanish-speaking student population. She had a reputation for being hardworking and authoritative, and for firmly believing that all students can master the coursework required by government standards. Most of all, she believed in using tests to assess students' strengths and weaknesses, so that teachers could tailor their lessons to students' needs well before year-end exams rolled around.


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