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The Business of Reforming Cincinnati's Schools

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This article is the 10th in an occasional series.

By Ann Bradley

CINCINNATI--Last spring, on his third day as the vice president of the Cincinnati public schools, W. Steven Ottemann visited the district's office of information management and stepped back in time about 25 years.

Instead of state-of-the-art computers, Mr. Ottemann saw data-entry cards and keypunch machines. In fact, the employees who gave him a tour showed off their new keypunch machine proudly.

"I thought, 'I haven't seen one of these things since I got out of college in the early 70's, and those were disappearing then,''' he recalled recently. "This is something to brag about?''

To make matters worse, the entire office--not just the computer area--was locked, preventing easy access to computer programmers or the systems manager.

"I said, 'This is not customer-oriented--and it's got to go,''' Mr. Ottemann said.

"It's got to go'' could well be the new motto for the Cincinnati school system. In partnership with the city's influential business community, the district is modernizing its business functions, casting off ineffective programs, and directing savings toward improving the quality of education for its 51,000 students.

The central administration has been dramatically reduced and reorganized. The business operations are now run not by the superintendent, but by Mr. Ottemann, the former controller for the Phillips 66 oil company in Dallas. His charge is to bring them up to date--quickly.

"This school system is entrenched in the 19th century, as far as computers go,'' said Ronald R. Roberts, the executive director of the Cincinnati Business Committee. "We're going to leap to the 21st century in one year.''

At a time of intense interest in shifting resources to schools--and pressure to do so from balky taxpayers--Cincinnati's efforts to cut its bureaucracy and direct more money to schools have attracted national attention.

The outmoded mangement practices and inefficient business operations that have come to light here, Cincinnati administrators say, are all too common in many city school systems.

'Antiquated Systems'

The housecleaning began in earnest a year ago, when Superintendent J. Michael Brandt announced an administrative reorganization that reduced central-office positions by 51 percent, for a savings of $16 million over two years. (See Education Week, May 20, 1992.)

Next week, the board of education will vote on a budget for next school year that calls for cutting another $27.5 million over one year, including an additional 20 percent of the central-office jobs. In all, 465 positions would be eliminated throughout the district.

The $292 million spending plan is also noteworthy because it represents only the fourth time in 20 years that the cash-strapped district has balanced its budget. It remains $150 million in debt, however.

The overhaul of the district has its roots in a 1990 tax-levy defeat that plunged the system into bankruptcy. The blueprint for the changes is a September 1991 report by the Cincinnati Business Committee, which called for "sweeping, fundamental change'' in the system.

The district, it charged, was "an organization plagued with problems: political discord, inefficient management, antiquated systems, and an administrative structure that has the tendency to maintain the status quo.''

Like many urban school systems, the Cincinnati district also was struggling with low student-achievement scores, discipline problems, and a high dropout rate.

Nine 'Mini-Districts'

There was just no way, people here say, that business could continue as usual.

"We have got to show the public that we mean business about fiscal responsibility,'' said Lynwood Battle, the president of the school board and an employee of Procter & Gamble Company, the Cincinnati-based consumer-goods giant that has been intimately involved in the central-office improvements.

As part of the reorganization, the district was divided into nine "mini-districts,'' each with a specially trained lead principal who administers a school and serves as a liaison to the superintendent.

One of the districts has been designated as a special "pilot'' that will explore promising educational approaches and recommend ways they can be used throughout the city.

The confusing layers of middle managers that stood between teachers and principals and principals and the superintendent are gone. The division of curriculum and instruction, for example, has been replaced with a bare-bones office of quality improvement, including a small unit that monitors compliance with state and federal regulations.

Despite all of the changes here--and many more proposed in next year's budget--there is little serious opposition to the pace or direction of change.

"Anyone who really believes in urban education is excited about this finally happening,'' said Melody A. Dacey, the principal of a mathematics and science magnet elementary school in the pilot mini-district. "We can't keep on the way we have over the last 15 years.''

A Foundation of Paper

With task forces and employees on loan from local businesses combing through the system, administrators here have learned some shocking facts about the Cincinnati school district. They seem almost eager to tell horror stories about past practices.

With the help of a life-insurance company, for example, Mr. Ottemann learned that the district makes 150 million copies of paper each year--more than 3,000 for every student and three times the average for school districts.

"Things have been out of control,'' he said. "When you have a bureaucracy built, the foundation is paper.''

Moreover, the copies are made on 20 to 30 different kinds of copying machines that need to be standardized.

In the schools, Mr. Ottemann said, there is also a "whole hodgepodge of different computers that don't match anything, are outdated, nobody knows how to service, and are costly to maintain.''

And there are no standardized procedures, he said, for such routine work as cleaning the schools.

To save money and improve service, Mr. Ottemann has hired private firms to run the intraschool mail service and the district's warehouse, which was so inefficient that it spent $500,000 a year to staff a building that contained only $1 million in supplies.

Schools were waiting three to four weeks to get basic items like paper clips and toilet paper, Mr. Ottemann said; now, supplies are delivered in two to three days.

The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers has argued against contracting out any more services, but has supported getting work done with fewer employees, said Tom Mooney, the union's president.

The involvement of the business community, he added, has finally cracked the resistance to change here.

"We kept hollering about it and making modest proposals at budget time hoping to be taken seriously,'' Mr. Mooney said, "but we couldn't get it done.''

'Flatter' Structure

The business committee's report recommended a new, "flatter'' management structure for the district that is now being put in place. Many of the recommendations involve logically combining services that had been kept separate.

The employee-benefits office, for example, is being placed under the supervision of the personnel office. A professional personnel administrator, not an educator, now runs the personnel department.

Mr. Ottemann also plans to combine the management of food services and school facilities into a department of "school-support services'' that will oversee lunchrooms, maintenance, and custodians.

A top priority is to get the 88 schools networked on a common computer system, he said, so that they can communicate with one another and order supplies directly from vendors.

All of the telephone systems in the elementary and middle schools are being replaced with touch-tone phones with voice mail.

Mr. Ottemann likes to tell a story about a student who was sent to use his school's phone and did not know how: He had never seen an old-fashioned rotary dial before.

The school buildings here also are in dire need of repair and updating, which school officials hope to pay for with a future bond issue.

Records Kept by Hand

The business community has loaned the district experts in the field of management-information services to study its needs and plan a new system.

Financial records, student data, and the personnel records of the district's 6,000 employees--which are now kept by hand--will be computerized.

The labor-intensive paperwork has meant that vital information has been difficult for schools to obtain. The new system, officials said, will be designed with schools' information needs in mind.

"We need to get financial records to schools that make sense,'' Mr. Ottemann said, records "that match the way we are running the business.''

Administrators here shake their heads when explaining that it now takes eight pieces of paper to enroll a child in school. Report cards also are not sent out until four weeks after a marking period has ended.

In overhauling antiquated practices, Mr. Ottemann and business leaders are using the popular business principles of "total quality management,'' which emphasizes making decisions on the basis of solid data and involving employees in the process. (See Education Week, March 11 and March 18, 1992.)

One quality-improvement team has been formed to recommend a system for keeping students' records. For the first time, Mr. Ottemann said, they have charted everyone in the district who needs such information and when they need it.

Need To 'Connect'

The unusual dual leadership of the district has had many advantages, people here say, but is by no means perfect.

Virginia Rhodes, a school board member, said she was troubled when Mr. Ottemann recommended buying about $1 million worth of metal detectors for schools troubled by violence just as the board was contracting with a consultant to offer training to teachers in conflict resolution.

"There is an articulation problem between the program side and the business side,'' she said. "I couldn't get administrators to connect these discussions.''

Investing in Training

A particularly troubling problem that has come to light under the heightened scrutiny is the number of teacher absences here.

The district is spending between $2 million and $3 million a year to pay for substitutes, which translates into more than 35,000 absences per year for the district's 3,200 teachers.

With better information and new management approaches--such as requiring teachers to speak to principals personally when calling in sick--Mr. Brandt hopes that number can be reduced.

"No one was monitoring teacher or student absences,'' the superintendent said. "There was very little expectation for the manager to do an analysis on their building.''

But once that information is readily available, principals and teachers will be expected to make use of it to improve their schools.

They will learn how to do so at the new Mayerson Human Resource Development Academy, a professional-development center established last year. The Cincinnati Business Committee had called for the creation of "a training laboratory'' for principals and teachers.

The academy, which has already trained the district's lead principals, is a nonprofit corporation run by its own board of directors, whose members include the superintendent, the school board president, and the teachers'-union president. Because it has one foot inside and one foot outside the district, educators here say they hope the academy can provide a consistent focus for training.

"In the past, the lack of that has promoted skepticism,'' said James Gum, the director of the pilot mini-district.

In a symbol of its importance, the academy will be housed with the new administrative headquarters in a former middle school. The downtown administration building is so old--and now, so empty--that it will be sold.

All of the district's principals and lead teachers also will be trained at the Mayerson Academy. Other teachers will have the option of undergoing training there.

"I hope the academy will be the shining star to get us through this,'' Ms. Dacey, the magnet-school principal, said. "The hope of this district is hanging on that star.''

Professional Opportunities

Ms. Dacey's comments reflect the widespread view here that management changes alone cannot improve education for Cincinnati students. But they can clear away obstacles to strengthening the teaching force, educators believe.

The district and the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers have been working together for several years to create professional opportunities for teachers and to improve the quality of the teaching force.

"You have to see the administrative reductions in the context of the changes the profession has been making,'' Mr. Mooney said. "The move from a bureaucratic model to a professional model is a key underpinning in why it makes sense.''

With the creation of the Mayerson Academy, there is now a sequence of programs in place to recruit high school students into teaching, induct novice teachers into the profession in special clinical schools, provide peer assistance for new teachers and those experiencing problems, offer advancement for teachers on a four-step career ladder, and provide intensive professional development.

Cincinnati has 210 credentialed "lead teachers,'' 125 of whom are serving in leadership roles. The goal, Mr. Mooney said, is to have 10 percent of the city's teachers in these roles, for which they are paid an extra $4,500 to $5,500 annually.

The district could not have afforded, he noted, to meet that goal and maintain its expensive bureaucracy.

In place of the department of curriculum and instruction, the union hopes to negotiate formal board recognition for new "curriculum councils'' of teachers that would take charge of instruction.

The councils--one for each of the 10 major subject areas--would shape curriculum, select materials, disseminate research, and help launch programs, including professional training for teachers.

Plans for Mini-District

Along with improving its business practices, the district has put in place new student-discipline policies, eliminated "social promotions'' of students, raised graduation requirements, and instituted a tough "no pass, no play'' rule for extracurricular activities.

It also has created the pilot mini-district, which was recommended by the Cincinnati Business Committee. The committee's report called for the pilot district to become a separate entity, but employee groups argued that that proposal smacked of "privatizing'' public education.

Instead of being independent from the school system, the pilot mini-district has a steering committee of representatives from each of its schools, which have "change teams'' that will recommend educational improvements.

The mini-district is made up of seven schools: Woodward High School, a middle school, four neighborhood elementary schools, and the magnet math and science elementary school. Its 4,500 students reflect the district's demographics: 63 percent are black, 2 percent are members of other minority groups, and the rest are white.

Mr. Gum, who has headed the mini-district since January, hopes the pilot district can function as the system's research-and-development laboratory.

"We are not satisfied with the academic performance of our students,'' Mr. Gum said. "Some schools have been successful, but too many more have not been.''

Student Portfolios

The pilot mini-district got off to a rocky start because of communication and leadership problems, administrators say, and has spent this year honing its reform plans.

Educators are planning to offer preschool classes, for example, and hope to switch to a trimester schedule at Woodward High to allow longer class periods.

A consultant's report that spells out plans for boosting achievement has been a sore point with the teachers' union, which argues that the plan relies too heavily on standardized tests and expects perfect scores too soon.

The emphasis on such scores may be changing, however. The mini-district plans to work with some of the colleges that are most popular with Woodward students to modify their entrance requirements to include portfolios of students' work. Some teachers at Woodward are using these new types of assessments.

"Students would take portfolios much more seriously if we could say, 'Hey, that could be part of your application,''' said Diana Porter, the coordinator of Woodward's essential-schools program, part of the Coalition of Essential Schools network.

Killing Sacred Cows

In his new budget proposal, Superintendent Brandt recommends strengthening popular programs and eliminating approaches that do not work. Some "sacred cows''--13 assistant-principal positions, driver education, and high-school-athletics directors' jobs--are recommended for elimination.

The district's extensive vocational-education program, which came under sharp criticism from the business committee, is also targeted for $4 million in cuts from its $15.8 million annual budget.

In analyzing the program, the district found that 70 percent of the courses offered were not job-related, and that 117 classes had too few students to qualify for state reimbursement.

Instead, money would be spent to expand popular Montessori, Paideia, foreign-language, and elementary mathematics and science programs.

Mr. Brandt admitted that his first inclination in sitting down to cut the budget was to trim a little here and there. But then he got help from business leaders, who looked at whether programs worked and what the public wanted.

"The business community took the subjectivity out of educational judgments,'' said Mr. Roberts, the business committee's director. "It was, 'Let's find out what it costs, how many people are served, and the results.' When you put that information on a grid, the answer leaps out.''

One of the most attention-grabbing proposals is to close the Cincinnati Academy of Physical Education--which has a winning athletic record and a losing academic one.

Taking all the above steps, board members, educators, and business leaders here say, should put the district on a solid footing. Confronting past management blunders is painful, they add, but imperative.

"You can get really angry about it,'' Mr. Roberts said of the waste and inefficiency. "We all do. But the nice thing is that the Cincinnati public schools--at the top--are not putting up with it any more.''

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