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Report Calls for Decentralization of Detroit School Administration

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The Detroit school board and acting Superintendent Eddie Green took a whack at their overgrown bureaucracy last week while mulling a new report that calls for big changes in the way the district's central office does business.

The report envisions a system in which principals lead K-12 clusters of schools backed by a smaller bureaucracy and a school board focused almost exclusively on policy. The changes would take effect over three years, according to the plan, with almost 300 clerical and administrative jobs eliminated at the central office and the human resources they represent shifted to the schools.

Meanwhile, the board unanimously approved a request from Mr. Green to allow the contracts of 15 of the district's 45 executives to expire without renewal. The move is the first round of job cuts linked to shutting down the district's area offices, a controversial change promoted by the civic and business group New Detroit Inc., which has been active in efforts to revive the 185,000-student district.

"We knew the positions would no longer be necessary under the new organization," school board President Irma Clark said.

In place of the district offices, schools will be grouped into 20 clusters or "constellations" comprising a comprehensive high school and its feeder elementary and middle schools, along with adult and alternative programs, said Deputy Superintendent Arthur Carter. Among the employees who will be shifted from the central or district offices to schools are social workers, psychologists, and nurses.

A Hard Look

The change to constellations, Mr. Carter added, "represents a massive shift of personnel from the central administration and area offices into the schools where teaching and learning take place."

The report presented to the board two weeks ago also stems from New Detroit, which last year convened an independent panel to study the district's management. Along with the elimination of area offices, the panel recommends a hard look at the central administration.

"We were not asked by the school board to do a head-count reduction," said Barbara Speer, a school organization expert and a consulting partner with the firm of KPMG Peat Marwick. "The question was, how can we move resources to the schools?"

Ms. Speer led a group that included top district officials and a parent, but the recommendations are those of Montvale, N.J.-based KPMG, a professional-services firm that has done similar studies in other urban districts. The report cites a slew of central-office problems. Among them are:

  • Costly and ineffective services;
  • More concern about positions and titles than performance;
  • Too many clerical employees; and
  • Administrators with poorly defined roles.

But the report also says that employees were frustrated by "the district's inability to move forward" and wanted change.

The study proposes beefing up a few areas of the central administration, such as planning and research, and streamlining many others. For example, the accounting unit would go from 97 clerical employees to 43 and from four administrators to one.

On the other hand, a new unit would provide broad support for the new school clusters or constellations, each of which would be headed by a principal from one of the schools in the group.

As a result of the shift in resources, Ms. Speer said, "instead of seeing a program supervisor for one hour out of a year, for example, teachers might be able to have someone in their classroom for a week or more."

Less Than an Embrace

District officials emphasized that parts of the report dovetail with plans already under way. But they were wary of embracing it as a whole. That stance prompted a critical editorial last week in the Detroit Free Press, which chided officials as loving the theory but hating the practice of empowering principals.

"The study is valuable," Mr. Carter said, "but the superintendent will not necessarily buy into all the recommendations made there. He will make some decisions and make final recommendations to the board over the next few months."

Ms. Clark, the board president, cited possible legal and contractual impediments to elements of the proposed reorganization. "We have to make sure our superintendent has been able to massage this thing till it's workable," she said.

The report also targets the 11-member school board.

The board secretary's office would be cut by eight positions, and it would no longer handle bid openings, preparation of the board's agenda, or requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act. "We looked at the mission of that particular unit, which is to set policy," Ms. Speer said, "and found a number of activities didn't fit."

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