Tweed's top educator could leave to lead Delaware schools

Marcia Lyles, the head of the city’s teaching and learning department and one of only a handful of veteran educators who reports directly to Chancellor Joel Klein, could be on the brink of leaving the school system. The answer hinges on an announcement tonight by a school board in Delaware, where Lyles and one other candidate are vying for the job of superintendent.

The board of the Christina School District, a semi-urban, 17,000-student district comprising parts of two of Delaware’s three largest cities as well as some suburbs, has narrowed down a cast of contenders to two finalists: a longtime Delaware educator who is now serving as acting superintendent and Lyles, a Harlem native who has worked in the city’s public school system since the 1970s.

Lyles would not confirm that she has been offered the job, but a member of the Christina teachers union, Harrie Ellen Minnehan, told me that rumors are flying in Delaware that Lyles will be announced as the new superintendent tonight — against the desires of teachers and principals, many of whom favor the Delaware candidate.

Minnehan said teachers are concerned about Lyles because she was trained by the Broad Foundation’s Superintendents Academy, which trains educators and businesspeople to lead urban school districts. “We don’t want anybody here from the Broad Foundation, because we had a guy from the Broad Foundation a couple of years ago who bankrupted the district,” she said. “If the board turns around and hands her a job, there’s going to be a firestorm here.”

Minnehan was referring to Joseph Wise, a former executive at the Walt Disney Company who left Christina in 2005 to become the head of schools in a Florida district. Delaware’s state auditor later said Wise left the district “in pathetic shape” financially. Wise is now the CEO of EdisonLearning, a for-profit education firm. The superintendent who is now being replaced was also trained by the Broad Foundation. She left to become Delaware’s secretary of education.

Philissa asked Lyles whether she is about to be offered a new job at yesterday’s Panel for Education Policy meeting in Manhattan. “I haven’t been offered,” Lyles said. “That’s a process that’s ongoing.” Lyles did not return an e-mail message and phone call today, and her secretary said she does not know if Lyles has plans to travel to Delaware tonight.

If Lyles is offered and accepts the position in Christina, she would be the second veteran educator in a week to leave the city Department of Education. Linda Wernikoff, the department’s top special education administrator, announced last week that she plans to retire at the end of the school year.

In New York City, Lyles began her career as a teacher and then became a superintendent in Brooklyn’s troubled Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood, staying in the job for five years. As deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Lyles’ influence on the school system has been muted, at least from public view.

Like others in her position in the past six years, Lyles has played a more minor role than previous teaching and learning heads did before Mayor Bloomberg took control of the public schools and made organizational changes a priority. Lyles has spearheaded an overhaul of gifted and talented programs and revisions to the city’s ban on social promotion.

Minnehan said that when Lyles spoke to teachers in Delaware, she emphasized her experience at closing the achievement gap. She said Lyles also repeatedly declared that “when the music changed, her dance step would change.” Lyles made a similar statement to the New York Times, when she was profiled by the paper in 2007, explaining that the saying, from an African proverb, encourages people to be flexible and open to change.

We’ll keep you posted on the Christina school board’s announcement.