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Almost everyone we interviewed about Amato's previous gigs started their recollections the same way: He came into a tough situation.
In Hartford, Eaton says, "He came in and gave this big speech about how they were never going to be last again, and it got him a lot of attention. And he really organized the place — he did get rid of some people who were not performing or were absent — and he went on to standardize the curriculum in ways that hadn't been done before."
When he started in Kansas City, Amato gave another big speech. Like the other districts, Kansas City's was in a tough situation. The Kansas City, Missouri, School District had only recently been granted provisional accreditation after some improvements were made under former Superintendent Bernard Taylor. (The school board declined to renew Taylor's contract in 2005.) And state testing results were poor.
During a reception at the district's downtown headquarters on Amato's first day of work, Amato assured faculty and staff that he wasn't there to fire people or cause chaos. He promised improvement in scores on state tests — the most important of which is the Missouri Assessment Program, in which Kansas City students have historically had poor showings.
As much as faculty and staff appreciate that kind of talk, the honeymoon never lasts. Amato left New Orleans in 2005 under a legal agreement that included a nondisparagement clause — no one involved is allowed to say anything bad about him. After Amato's resignation, Louisiana Education Superintendent Cecil Picard issued a statement demanding that the New Orleans district cede financial control to the state. (Picard died in 2006; Louisiana school officials declined to comment, and New Orleans School District officials did not return calls seeking comment about Amato's time there.)
"He came in on a 4-3 vote, and if that would've been me, I would've said thanks but no thanks," says Keith Twichell, president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, a local group active in improving academics. "His one glaring weakness was communication. When we did try to reach out to him, it was very difficult to get a response. And he was not very good at explaining his own programs. If I were in his position, I would have probably hired a financial expert, and he didn't go that route. When help was offered, he didn't take it."
It wasn't an amicable split in Hartford, either.
"They did get the test scores up, but I think it would be a stretch to say there was any improvement in the schools," Eaton says. "By the time he left, a lot of the teachers despised him and found him very difficult to deal with." Regardless of what teachers thought, Amato left Connecticut with a $162,240 severance package plus benefits for one year.
Amato blames his Hartford departure on a shift in city government during his third year, when the mayor secured more power over the district.
"Any district in the country with a governance shift, a superintendent better be on the lookout because that occurs precisely because they want to shake up the system," Amato says.
In New Orleans, he adds, the district's financial condition upon his departure was the result of corruption that was already deeply entrenched when he arrived.