December 3, 2013

Former Kansas City schools chief Anthony Amato dies at age 66

His headstrong style inspired sweeping changes and controversy in a string of short-lived tenures coast to coast.

Former Kansas City superintendent Anthony Amato, whose headstrong style inspired sweeping changes and controversy in a string of short-lived tenures coast to coast, died Monday in New Orleans after an extended illness. He was 66.

He had been serving since 2010 as the principal of an international-themed high school in New Orleans, a respite after tumultuous rides trying to turn around desperate school systems in Hartford, Conn.; New Orleans; Kansas City; and Stockton, Calif.

Amato burst onto Kansas City’s scene as a late entry joining the finalists seeking to replace Bernard Taylor as superintendent in May 2006.

He blew away the competition with a confident and dramatic plan that he declared would reform Kansas City’s long-troubled school system.

In rapid order, he brought in a total revamp of the district’s reading instruction with the rigid Success For All curriculum, launched a universal prekindergarten program, shut down middle schools to create a K-8 elementary system and was planning a group of specialized “boutique” high schools.

But clashes with community groups, board members and the teachers union quickly ensued as Amato’s stormy reign sowed more detractors than followers.

In late 2007, a demoted cabinet member’s human rights complaint said Amato had used offensive epithets in staff meetings when referring to two women on the school board who were among his chief antagonists.

By January 2008, the board negotiated a buyout of Amato’s contract after just 18 months and unanimously courted his resignation.

Amato, as an only child raised by his single mother in a New York City apartment, used a precocious knack for reading and language to propel himself into a career as an educator.

His success as a science teacher soon led him up the ranks of administration, where he would earn his fame with a 10-year run as the passionate superintendent of a 127,000-student subdistrict in New York City’s public schools.

He established a reputation for quick turnarounds when he went from New York to Hartford, where his slate of reforms brought initial gains to what had been Connecticut’s lowest-performing school system.

But Amato and Hartford’s mayor-led school board parted ways in just two years, starting a pattern of intense but brief superintendent roles that would take him to New Orleans and then Kansas City.

A Kansas City school board swept up by Amato’s grand reform ideas gambled that he could reclaim the sustaining success he had enjoyed in New York City.

Amato and his wife, Iris, moved into a Brookside home with three adopted siblings they had rescued from New Orleans foster homes and enrolled them in Kansas City schools.

Within a year after his Kansas City tenure came undone, Amato was selected to lead a similarly struggling school system in Stockton, Calif. — a position he would also leave in less than two years.

Amato is survived by his wife and seven children. Funeral arrangements in New Orleans were pending.

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