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Center Criticizes Fla. District's Top-Down Style

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The Palm Beach County, Fla., school district is in an uproar over a critical report issued by a nonprofit group that had been providing technical assistance to some district schools for nearly two years.

With the release of its report this month, the Boston-based Community Training and Assistance Center terminated its relationship with the 127,000-student district, concluding that "critical elements needed for successful reform do not exist in Palm Beach County."

"While the district conducts much activity in the name of reform, the overall implementation of reform is severely flawed," says the center's report, which includes recommendations for improvement.

The district's top-down management style has hampered site-based decisionmaking at schools, the document charges, and has a poor organizational climate in which "fear of retribution runs rampant."

The report also criticizes the way the district is handling a desegregation plan.

Last week, Superintendent Monica Uhlhorn said that while she believes her administration has been supportive of school-based change in the district, she does not intend to dispute the report in detail.

"Those of us who are involved are in disagreement with the specifics," the superintendent said.

"What I'm going to concentrate on is the perception out there that we've got to address--for more involvement at the school-based level and the community level," she added.

An 'Honest Mirror'

In 1993, the center invited the district, through a competitive process, to join its Leadership of School Reform initiative. The Economic Council of Palm Beach County, a business group, and local foundations paid for the technical assistance, which involved helping 10 school teams analyze themselves and draw up improvement plans. Three more schools were focusing on collaborating with health and social-service providers.

The center then intended to work with school board members and administrators to point out the systemic changes needed to support schools under a more decentralized system.

Although ctac offered to provide training for central administrators, the report says, it was rebuffed.

Donald B. Gratz, the center's coordinator of national school reform, said the organization tries to be an "honest mirror" of conditions that it finds. As such, he said, and because of its obligations to its funders, the center decided not to simply withdraw quietly.

"The conditions in Palm Beach County are not worse than the conditions in other districts, and in some cases, they're better," Mr. Gratz said. "But there wasn't the willingness to be self-reflective among key leadership."

Under its Leadership of School Reform project, the center also is working with schools in Albuquerque, N.M.; Camden, N.J.; Cleveland; and Jackson, Miss.

Districts that are serious about reform should build systems that are based on the needs of schools, Mr. Gratz said. Schools' needs should determine budget priorities, professional-development approaches, and the organization of central functions to help schools.

But in Palm Beach County, he said, the school district largely has failed to reorder its priorities. School officials have said they feel they are devising plans merely to comply with orders, not to change the way they operate.

Two-Sided View

Superintendent Uhlhorn said she likely would not have continued the district's relationship with C.T.A.C. She and several school board members complained that there was tremendous turnover among the center personnel who worked with the county, and they questioned how much schools had accomplished with the center's help.

Center officials said that one person left to take another job and that other staff members were added to work with more schools.

Attempts to discredit C.T.A.C., rather than address the substance of its report, are typical of the district's culture, William J. Slotnik, the center's executive director, maintained.

Don Mathis, the chairman of the Economic Council's education committee, called the C.T.A.C. analysis of the district an accurate description of its problems and said his group has strongly urged the superintendent to address the issues it raises.

But Jody Gleason, the chairwoman of the school board, said the report was not a fair assessment of the district--which is facing a booming enrollment and budget problems, and must devise a plan to address a discrimination complaint filed with the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights.

"I hadn't seen them producing any results," she said of C.T.A.C., "and I wanted to know where they were going."

The Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, upset that teachers have not received raises in recent years and concerned over a new student-discipline policy, took a vote of no confidence in Ms. Uhlhorn on March 13.

It was the union's second such vote. Frank Williams, the association's president, called the district "out of control."

Cheryl Onorato, the president of Metamorphosis for Education Inc., a community group that secures grants for school projects, said the center's analysis was "right on target."

"What they said is representative of what everybody thinks and experienced on day-to-day level," she said.

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