Additional and critical considerations for selecting a new superintendent [Update]

[Update – Maureen Downey at AJC’s Get Schooled blog published the following editorial in its entirety – Thanks!]

In a recent candidate forum, each candidate was asked the following question –

What qualities, experience or position on specific issues are you looking for in a new superintendent?

The candidates focused on the personal qualities and experience. While the answers varied to some degree in terms of emphasis, as a general rule the answers were that they wanted someone with experience in urban districts, honest, transparent, “been there, done that”, a great leader, etc. In sum, all the characteristics of a great leader that you would expect to hear.

However, what the candidates must understand is that the characteristics they mentioned are simply the first threshold that a superintendent candidate must meet.

What is just as important are the new superintendent’s position on specific issues and, if they do not coincide with the Boards view, the selection process is simply setting the district up for future contentious problems between the BOE and the superintendent.

Several examples will bring this to light.

Maximum Class Sizes – This past year during the budget process several of the BOE members argued strenuously for smaller class sizes. In addition, I believe that almost all the current candidates (including incumbents running for reelection) stress smaller class size to one degree or another. So regardless of who gets elected, there is likely to be a consensus on the BOE to reduce the maximum class size.

Now let’s take another look at what happened this past year. Superintendent Davis did not agree that class sizes needed to be smaller. And in the end, the FY14 budget was passed with almost exactly the same maximum class sizes as in FY13.

Why did it end up this way?

Because the superintendent and the administration control the numbers and the dialogue – if they are not in agreement with the BOE, the BOE’s wishes can be easily thwarted just as they were this past year.

Central Office Administration – Once again, during this past budget season, there were calls from BOE members for a reduction in the number and total cost of the central administration activities. Again, Superintendent Davis was quite clear on the issue – he believes that the central office administration and related infrastructure needs to be larger.

What was the result?

There were minimal to no changes in the number of people working in centralized administrative positions. Again, the administration controlled the information and the conversation in such a way that they got what they wanted in the budget.

Starting Bell Schedules – Starting this past January, the administration determined that the starting bell for elementary, middle and high schools needed to change. The problem was that bus drives run two routes in the morning – the first to elementary schools and then a second to middle or high schools (or both). The time between the elementary school starting bell and the middle and high school starting bell did not leave a sufficient amount of time for the bus drivers to get the middle and high school kids to school on time.

It was purely a logistical issue. But it was not fully presented as such and the BOE decided not to change the elementary school starting bell as the administration asked. Unfortunately, logistical issues can’t be simply voted away – either additional bus drivers had to hired or the bus schedules had to be changed.

What happened?

The administration simply changed the bus schedules for the elementary schools – this did not require BOE approval – and, in the original schedules the elementary school kids arrived 50 minutes in advance of the starting bell. Again, the BOE had their say on bell schedules, but the administration’s position won out in the end.

Now consider a number of proposals that many candidates are discussing and consider how successful they will be in implementing their proposals if the new superintendent does not agree. Here is just a short list:

  1. Reducing the size of the central office bureaucracy – both in numbers and total cost. If the new superintendent has similar views to Mr. Davis, this will not happen.
  2. Decentralizing authority, responsibility and accountability to the school level leaders – this is a fundamental and cultural change that, if the new superintendent is not fully on board with the idea, it will not happen.
  3. The decision on the fundamental organizational structure of APS – traditional (status quo) or charter system (more on this in another post, but for the moment please accept that this is different than the approval of an individual charter school – it is not the same). There are a couple of other variations on this theme, but in short, it is a centralized versus a decentralized operation. Again, if the new superintendent is not in agreement with the fundamental direction the new BOE want to go in, the implementation of the organizational structure selected could be a disaster.
  4. Expansion of charter schools in the district – this issue has been controversial and divisive in the neighborhoods affected. However, the cost to the system to provide an education through a valid charter school is less than the cost of a traditional school. If BOE wants to reallocate resources to the classroom and away from administration, this is one source of cost savings. However, as Superintendent Davis has shown, the administration can easily set up road blocks to the expansion of charter schools. The new superintendent can easily do the same.
  5. The budget process and financial accountability – during the last year this process became worse, not better. And the administration was fully on board in hindering and slowing the process down to the extent that they simply ran out the clock and the BOE had to pass it (with three members, including the Chair of the Budget Commission voting against). Will the new superintendent want a budget process that is fully transparent and provides the BOE with reasons for the tactical decisions and policy implications of changing resource allocations? If not, it is unlikely that the budget process will improve – the administration controls the numbers and critical pieces of information that leave the BOE in almost a “rubber stamp” position.

And there are more, such as additional redistricting to remove the excess capacity in the system, compensation structural changes, strategic redesign of the workforce based on district needs, teacher credentialing, teacher mentoring, vocational training, etc.

The list is long – but if the new superintendent does not have the vision and experience that coincides with the BOE’s policy goal, the commitments made during this campaign by candidates will not happen.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon]

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