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Detroit School-Empowerment Plan Suffers Setbacks

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Five months after three reform-minded members of the Detroit board of education were turned out of office, the district's quest to "empower'' schools to manage their own affairs is proceeding--but slowly.

Initially, the board of education had set a target of establishing 45 empowered schools by the end of the current academic year.

Now, for a variety of reasons, Superintendent Deborah McGriff and members of the board say that target is unlikely to be met.

Because of the setbacks, Ms. McGriff last month asked the board to consider modifying the terms of her contract, which ties the payment of a portion of her salary to her progress in expanding the empowerment program and other reforms.

But Ms. McGriff and several board members stressed that they remain firmly committed to the idea of decentralizing both governance and school operations.

"There is a strong majority for reform, even among the new board members,'' said Penny Bailer, a board member. "Reform is alive and well.''

The three members of the so-called HOPE team who were defeated in last November's board elections ran afoul of the Detroit Federation of Teachers and other labor groups for their support of school empowerment. Their successors had the backing of the teachers' union.

There are now 20 empowered schools in the city, up from the 15 that existed in September, when members of the teachers' federation staged a 27-day strike to protest the push for empowerment.

Under the empowerment initiative, schools receive 92 percent of the district's per-pupil spending and are free to manage their own operations, including buying services from outside vendors. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1992.)

"I'd like for us to be a lot further along than we are,'' said Lawrence C. Patrick Jr., the board member who is considered the architect of empowerment. "I'd like for us to have enough schools actually participating so people standing on the sidelines could all look and see an [empowered] school that looks just like their school.''

Union 'Embargo' Blamed

Schools have been slow to vote for empowerment for a number of reasons, Detroit officials said.

Although the teachers' union agreed to drop its objections to the program after the strike, the Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors continued its "embargo'' of the initiative until February, when it settled on a new contract.

Helen Martellock, the president of the administrators' union, said this month that she thinks empowerment is a "passÀe issue,'' despite the union's removal of the ban.

"That was really a George Bush initiative,'' she said. "I don't see a healthy growth of that here in Detroit.''

The school board also was forced to cut the $1.3 million it had budgeted for empowerment to make up for the budget shortfall that followed the teachers' settlement. The board has pledged to restore the money on July 1, when the new fiscal year starts.

Mr. Patrick said the delay in receiving money should not discourage schools from voting to become empowered, since they would need time to plan their programs before spending the funds anyway.

But John Elliott, the president of the teachers' union, said the lack of money has dampened enthusiasm for the program.

"A few schools have come on board,'' he said, "but let's say there's no great rush.''

Pay for Performance

Under the unusual pay-for-performance clause of Ms. McGriff's contract, which pays her $130,600 this year, an additional $25,000 is "put at risk'' and paid to her only if she meets certain goals and objectives established by the board.

One of the goals this year is to create 45 empowered schools.

But the superintendent last month asked board members to either restore the budget for empowerment or to reduce the number of such schools she will be expected to create, arguing that the budget cuts and union embargo have made it difficult to achieve that target.

"I just wanted an adjustment to a realistic number of schools,'' she said, noting that for much of the year the union was telling its members not to vote for empowerment.

She added that she is also being encouraged to create a system of "charter'' schools, which would have a formal arrangement with the district that would spell out their plans more fully and give them more freedom.

But the district has received a legal opinion saying that it does not have the authority to grant such charters, Ms. McGriff pointed out.

Members of the board of education did not immediately respond to the superintendent's request.

During a February retreat, board members and the superintendent agreed that empowerment would continue to be a major initiative in the district, Ms. Bailer said. Only one of the new board members, Robert Boyce, is against empowerment. Mr. Boyce argues that the district should focus on improving neighborhood schools.

The relative weight that the initiative carries in determining the superintendent's performance pay has been reduced this year, however.

Last year, the board set a goal of creating 20 empowered schools and determined that 25 percent of the superintendent's $15,000 pay for reaching specific goals would go toward that aim. She also was eligible to be paid an extra $10,000--$1,000 for each empowered school up to a total of 30 such schools, said Ms. Bailer, who oversees the superintendent's evaluation process.

This year, empowerment will carry a weight of 4.7 percent instead of 25 percent, Ms. Bailer said, adding that the board was late in setting the targets because of the labor strife and budget problems.

Mr. Patrick, noting that Detroit is the only major city that pays its chief for performance, said he does not believe adjustments should be made.

"When you negotiate a contract,'' he said, "a deal is a deal.''

Finally, the exact definition of empowerment is still at issue in Detroit. The unions are insisting that if the district wants to use a consultant's report it commissioned, which lays out a blueprint for empowerment, then it must formally negotiate that understanding.

"We do have some challenges that need to be corrected if we want to move forward collaboratively,'' Ms. McGriff said.

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