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He came into a tough situation.
Amato says his background gives him a unique handle on troubled districts. A native of New York City, he describes his childhood education as having taken place in poor neighborhoods with low expectations. He says he remembers looking around a classroom and seeing all the other students failing.
"I'm very aware of the challenges in urban America and what it takes to shift direction," he says. "Not just to sit around and hope something happens. So I understand when people say they're uncomfortable [with changes]. Usually the top third says, 'Wow, this is great.' It's the middle third you really have to capture. Then there's the bottom third that won't ever agree with anything you do."
He describes five years as a lifetime for a superintendent; an average tenure, he says, is about two years.
Regardless of their ability to tell inspirational stories about overcoming childhood difficulties, job-searching superintendents are normally subjected to background checks. However, Kansas City School District board member Marilyn Simmons, who voted against hiring Amato and remains a vocal opponent of many of his decisions, says she never saw one.
Maurice Watson, a Blackwell Sanders attorney who represents the school district, says he doesn't know whether such a check was ever done. He refers inquiries to the ProAct Search firm, which he says investigated several of the candidates the district considered in the winter and spring of 2006. As of this guide's press time, ProAct representatives had not returned our phone calls.
Simmons blames the district's eagerness to hire a superintendent for the apparent lack of a formal background check on Amato.
But the problem may have been that Amato removed his name from contention in the middle of the hiring process. After the search committee had narrowed the list to three other candidates, he asked to be reconsidered.
"If we had a background check, I don't think he would have gotten the job," Simmons says. "We snuck him in the back door. And because we did it improperly, now everything's a quandary."
Step 2: Kill the Baby Sitter
Once you're in, you'll still have to deal with outside groups that have grown accustomed to getting paychecks from your district.
In Amato's case, that turned out to be the Local Investment Commission, known as LINC.
LINC describes itself as an organization that provides educational, child-welfare, health, neighborhood-development and senior services. Simmons and others say LINC's programs have been a necessary tool for keeping children off the streets when their parents work long hours and can't afford day care, and that it has helped unemployed parents find work, offered after-school academic programs (including reading instruction) and developed relationships with other community programs.
When she first met Amato in the summer of 2006, LINC President Gayle Hobbs had high hopes.
"We were actually very excited to work with him," she says. "He was talking the talk, and he said he wanted to work with everybody. We thought we were going to have a great future with him."
But during Amato's first semester, the new superintendent introduced an after-school tutoring program called Power Hour, designed to prepare students for standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT. Students who stuck around after final bell would be required to attend Power Hour before any other activities — including LINC's.
LINC officials say this mandate reduced the number of students who were able to take part in the organization's programs.
Then, in December, the district refused to pay $1.2 million for services that LINC officials claim the district owed LINC under the terms of its contract.