Tonight at the monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board my friend Tom Nida will receive the organization’s Award for Exceptional Service.
Mr. Nida was chairman of the PCSB for six years from 2004 to 2010. His term was characterized by explosive growth of our local charter school movement, with enrollment jumping during his period by an incredible 25 percent a term. He was a towering strong force on the board, who teamed with PCSB executive director Josephine Baker, also an Exceptional Service Award winner, to develop a great number of the systems and processes that have led the PCSB to become recognized as the nation’s leading charter school authorizer. Many of the operational ground rules for charters he and the board had to develop in real time since there was no precedent anywhere for the rules under which these schools should operate. The movement at this point was so young. The first charter school had only opened in Washington D.C. in 2006.
But I would not be telling the entire story if I talked only about enrollment increases. Mr. Nida also cared deeply about quality. The PCSB closed schools that were not performing at a high level, which mostly revolved around financial stability. If he got wind that a school was deviating from its mission to improve the academic performance of the kids within its walls, Mr. Nida famously held one of his “Come to Jesus” meetings with the school’s board to right the ship. You did not want to be in one of those sessions.
Mr. Nida was passionate about his volunteer position, perhaps because he was a witness to what was happening with the city’s traditional schools. Having proudly graduated from Anacostia High School, it must have deeply pained him to see the decrepit state that the traditional schools had become, with buildings that were literally crumbling down, little actual teaching taking place in the classrooms, and drugs and violence filling the hallways.
Mr. Nida was also the first person who agreed to sit down with me for one of my “exclusive interviews.” These were some of the most enjoyable times in my life. We had never officially met, but over cocktails and appetizers that Mr. Nida refused to allow me to pay for, we discussed every aspect of charter schools’ governance. Mr. Nida taught me the importance of the work of nonprofit boards and he has an understanding of facility financing that I’m sure no one one can equal. Often, I had to simply put down my pen and think about the information that just passed through his lips so I could grasp what he was telling me. One question I asked turned into dozens more. The information was especially valuable because over the years that I met with him I was the chairman of two charter school boards and interviewed many public school reform leaders.
Congratulations Mr. Nida for a job well done.