Anthony Amato, former New Orleans education superintendent, dies unexpectedly at 66

Amato resigned before Katrina hit

Anthony Amato, the last in a string of superintendents who struggled to lift public schools in New Orleans off the bottom of state rankings before Hurricane Katrina ushered in a new era of independent charter schools, died Monday.

He was 66.

The International High School of New Orleans, a charter school that Amato had been running since 2010, announced his death but did not disclose the cause. In a written statement, Rob Couhig, the school’s board chairman, said Amato “passed away unexpectedly yet peacefully surrounded by his beloved family.”

Like other superintendents before him, Amato arrived in New Orleans in 2003 sporting impressive credentials as an educational turnaround artist, then almost immediately clashed with members of the Orleans Parish School Board.

Offering a raft of reform proposals meant to lift dismal scores on the state’s all-important LEAP exams, Amato produced modest academic gains, but he could never resolve the school system’s dire financial problems, ultimately facing a takeover of the district’s budget by New York consultants before he resigned in April 2005.

Amato’s two-year tenure would mark the last chapter of an era remembered for tumultuous School Board politics, crumbling school facilities and little consensus about how to improve test scores or dropout rates.

Just months after he stepped down, Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters would finally prompt the Legislature to act on a long-discussed plan for a state agency — the Recovery School District — to take over management of the city’s public schools.

Today, the Orleans Parish School Board manages only about a quarter of the school system, and debate continues about what kind of role the board and its superintendent should play in the future.

Amato took the school system’s reins in 2003, promising an immediate boost in test scores and a bond issue to help repair aging school buildings.

Earlier, he had helped turn around a New York City middle school, then one of the city’s 42 separate school districts. After that, he took over the schools in Hartford, Conn., where he improved scores but left under a cloud after lobbying publicly for other jobs.

In New Orleans, he was controversial from the start. Amato, a Puerto Rico native, was pitted against a black superintendent from Yonkers, N.Y., in the board’s final vote, which came down 4-3 in his favor.

However, the district’s money problems became an issue right away. Deficits grew. He fired a chief financial officer he had hired just a few months before. And then there was the controversial revelation that school district employees had boarded up his home as Hurricane Ivan approached in 2004.

For a while, after School Board elections later that year furnished him with additional allies and a mandate to take firmer control of the school system without meddling from the board, it appeared that Amato would stick around. State lawmakers granted him extra powers and pared back the board’s authority.

But as financial problems mounted, he lost support from both board members and state officials who had been backing him.

He went on to superintendent jobs in Kansas City and Stockton, Calif., before landing back in New Orleans at the International High School, a Type 2 charter that takes students from anywhere in the state and specializes in foreign languages.

He is survived by his wife and seven children.