September 27, 2007

District 186 Personnel Chief Brings a New Perspective ; ‘Dr. Ike’ Breaks Tradition of Filling Position Internally


Alexander Ikejiaku, the new personnel director for the Springfield School District, sat in his office at 1900 W. Monroe St. Thursday and recalled what he told his family in the early 1980s, when, at 19, he prepared to leave his native Nigeria to attend college in New York.

"We'll see you in four years," he pledged.

Ikejiaku, now 46, occasionally has returned to Ogwa, his hometown in southern Nigeria. But after heading off to the State University of New York at Brockport (college opportunities near Ogwa being slim), Ikejiaku's plans to return home for good faded as graduate school, a subsequent internship and challenging jobs kept him stateside.

As Ikejiaku settles into his new job in Springfield, the challenges will keep coming. Traditionally, the Springfield School District has promoted its own people to the position. Having personnel chiefs who were former district teachers and principals guaranteed they knew how things worked - for better or worse, considering lingering suspicions that local school administrators play favorites and mingle with local politics.

In addition to being an outsider, Ikejiaku - pronounced e-kay- jeAH-ku ("Dr. Ike" for short) has never been a teacher or a principal.

He comes to Springfield directly from the Rochester City School District in New York, where he was a mid-level administrator overseeing large divisions within the budget and special education departments of the 34,000-student system. Previously, he had been with the city of Rochester and surrounding Monroe County.

Ikejiaku moved from city to school administration after earning his doctorate in education administration at SUNY-Buffalo in 2000. He already had a master's in public administration, and SUNY's education administration program seemed like a natural step.

"My eyes were beginning to be opened more and more to the education field," Ikejiaku said. For years, he's harbored a dream of someday teaching at the college level, inspired by an older cousin, a former teacher who is now a federal judge in Nigeria.

It was during Ikejiaku's doctoral studies that he and School Superintendent Walter Milton brushed shoulders (Milton is from Rochester, N.Y.). When the Springfield district advertised the personnel opening (the previous director retired), Ikejiaku remembered his brief acquaintanceship with Milton years ago and sent him a note. Milton encouraged Ikejiaku to apply.

At first, Milton, who started with the district on July 1, had been working with outgoing school superintendent Diane Rutledge to fill the position internally. But interviews with district candidates were postponed when some Springfield School Board members encouraged Milton to make the search his own.

School Board president Erin Conley said she is pleased with Milton's decision.

"(Ikejiaku) is bringing a lot of union experience to the table," Conley said. "He's a very intelligent man who has a very compassionate perspective on personnel decisions. He's very personable, easy to talk to. He seems to be a good fit for our district."

Ikejiaku said his brief interactions with the board, whose members can sometimes line up along political lines, have been pleasant.

"Everybody brings something to the table. Politics is politics. And running for office is a good thing, if you can serve the public good," Ikejiaku said. "There's a continuum (between) a professional board and a political board. And to the extent that you stay on the professional side, you're apt to do well.

"There is a price to pay when the board falls on the political side of things. Ultimately, it affects student achievement. I don't think I'll allow myself to be a part of any effort that causes achievement in this district to go down."

Nothing Ikejiaku has encountered so far has suggested to him that his lack of classroom experience and unfamiliarity with Springfield will be disadvantages. Any hiring decision Ikejiaku makes will come after a long line of standard team interviews and background searches that factor into district hires.

"Hiring is hiring," Ikejiaku said. "When you have ... on the books ... the job description for virtually every position, all it takes is to bring the person in and talk to them and get a sense of whether or not they can do the job."

However, as the district's human resource leader, Ikejiaku also will have to engage in potentially thorny situations, such as union negotiations, dismissals, grievances and other sensitive matters.

His experiences suggest he'll be fair. While at Rochester, Ikejiaku filed a civil rights lawsuit, still making its way through the courts, that accuses his former district of discrimination during a reorganization of administrative titles that increased his responsibilities while keeping him at a lower pay grade.

Ikejiaku wouldn't talk about the case, because it is still active, he said, and also because he's concerned about being perceived as a "troublemaker." But he said he has learned from the experience.

"Be fair to people, even if it means bending over backwards," Ikejiaku said. "Take every complaint seriously, just in case you might be wrong. Having gone through that and being who I am - a minority person - it will definitely factor into my work as issues like that come to my desk. There's no question about that."

That attitude also fits the school district's recent effort to increase the number of its minority teachers.

On the other hand, Ikejiaku, who was a union representative back in Rochester, isn't afraid to push buttons. On his resume, he lists a graduate school paper he wrote assessing merit pay for teachers.

The concept of rewarding teachers based on the success of their students has been hotly debated for years. Its biggest opponents have been teacher unions, who are lobbying Congress hard to strike a proposed merit-pay measure from a new version of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for renewal.

Ikejiaku said his unpublished paper was merely an "academic exercise." Still, he acknowledged that listing it on a resume for the director of personnel position in a unionized school district was at least slightly provocative. (One of the reasons Milton cited for hiring Ikejiaku was his research skills).

"I'm wide open about (merit pay)," Ikejiaku said. "I realize collective bargaining is a very serious issue. And I'm happy to find, upon getting here, that there's a good relationship between the administration and union leadership. They try to work things out.

"Very few things really go beyond the discussion and problem- solving phase. I like that. We meet often. In so doing, you head off grievances.

"And I recognize it's the right of unions to expect the best for their membership, as well as the district's (right) to protect the taxpayer. Those two will forever compete with one another."

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