James Meza will step down as Jefferson Parish school superintendent in September, leaving his post after a three-year tenure marked by dramatic improvements in student test scores.
Meza, a former dean at the University of New Orleans, signed on as an interim superintendent, expecting to be around for only a few months, but stayed on and overhauled the system and its approach to educating students.
His contract is good through January, but Meza said Wednesday that the fall is the right time to leave because it will allow him to help get the new school year off to a strong start but still leave him time to embark on the next stage of his career.
Meza, 66, said he’ll probably do some consulting work for three or four years, but that he also would like to begin working with foundations and universities to create a superintendents academy to train people for top jobs in public school systems.
“I think in my time in Jefferson, I’ve achieved what I wanted to do and what the board wanted me to do,” he said, noting the superintendent’s job is 24-7.
While he acknowledged he’ll likely miss the job before the year is out, he said he’ll look back with pride on what he, the School Board, administrators and teachers have accomplished since he took on the “temporary” job of running the state’s largest system in 2011.
The system’s performance grade rose from a D to a B in Meza’s first two years, and the share of Jefferson Parish schools earning an A or a B rose from 14 percent to 41 percent.
His drive to cut waste and improve efficiency brought the system from a $25 million deficit to a balanced budget, and Meza said the results include a two-year, $7 million capital improvement program to fix up schools and the first teacher raises in three years.
“Budgetarily, the district is very stable and now (the board) can plan more strategically,” he said. “They’re out of this crisis mode that we were in when I came here. You couldn’t plan ahead. You couldn’t make decisions.”
But beyond the strides measured in budgets and state Department of Education grades, Meza said he feels he has succeeded in changing the system to one that makes student achievement its central purpose, gives teachers and principals the autonomy they need and devotes its resources to supporting that goal.
But those changes did not come without tension.
The administration shrank by 150 positions, making people do more with less, though Meza said it allowed more resources to go into the classrooms.
Also during his tenure, the system closed seven of its roughly 80 schools and replaced 50 principals whose schools didn’t show achievement over a three-year period.
Meza said the idea is to give teachers and principals more autonomy, but also more responsibility.
Meza said he is a firm believer in public education, and he has been a teacher and principal at the high school level, in addition to stints at the state Department of Education and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
But he also was a leader in the local charter school movement during his 20 years at UNO, and his most controversial change in Jefferson Parish was arguably the decision not to renew the system’s collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union.
That decision barely passed the School Board on a 5-4 vote, but Meza said he feels the old agreement with the union put the focus more on adults than its 47,000 students. He called it an outdated book that minimized creativity.
Thanks in part to changes in state law that allowed the system to have more control over hiring, Meza said the system has tried to hire only people who add value to it. “You need to have quality people to sustain success,” he said.
Meza said he thinks some of the anxiety among teachers has abated as schools and students have become more successful and the system’s finances have stabilized.
While he feels he’s built a strong foundation for the future, Meza said much will depend on the School Board, whose members are up for re-election in November, and on the new superintendent the board selects after a national search expected to go well into 2015.
Meza credited the board for its support and the tough decisions it made, noting that with the exception of the collective bargaining vote, most major votes were 8-1 or 9-0.
Some board members have said publicly they’d like Meza to stay longer, but he said he has made his decision.
He wouldn’t entirely rule out another interim post with another large school system, but he said consulting is far more likely.
He’s particularly intrigued with the idea of the superintendents academy, he said.
“Most superintendents come from experience in a district, and if it’s a system that’s been status quo for a long time, then the status quo will continue,” he said. “We need to open up some opportunities where people can learn some new approaches and have some different systems in place.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.