Effort To Cut Back D.C.'s Bureaucracy Proves Nettlesome

By Lynn Olson — November 20, 1991 19 min read

WASHINGTON--Last summer, the new superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools reassigned 4 assistant superintendents and 14 other non-instructional employees to provide direct services to students, primarily as principals and assistant principals.

But, three months into the school year, only one of those administrators has shown up at her new post.

“None of them are there,” Superintendent Franklin L. Smith said in a recent interview. “All of them--with the exception of Dr. Connie Clark-- are on sick leave.”

“I guess I have to anticipate that they will show up at their posts,” he added, “but I’m not optimistic.”

Although all of the administrators continue to draw salaries, they are, in essence, on strike: apparently refusing to participate in a much-vaunted effort to trim the size of the system’s bureaucracy and shifts its focus to the schools.

The incident marks one more setback in a two-year battle to reduce what one observer has described as the “most oversized and under-concerned educational bureaucracy in the country.

According to a 1989 study, more than a third of the school system’s $529-million budget was being spent on non-instructional services. The portion devoted to central administration-which sources estimated at roughly 1,600 positions at the beginning of 1991--had doubled in 10 years.

At the same time, the system was failing by most measures, including a 40 percent dropout rate, substandard test scores, crippling attendance problems, crumbling buildings, and a citywide grade-point average of D+.

To educators at the school level and to critics in the local community, such troubles can be traced to a central bureaucracy in the downtown Presidential Building that they perceive as mostly indifferent to students’ needs.

“We’re out here hanging by our toenails,” one principal, who asked not to be identified, complained recently. “We very much feel the lack of support.”

The 1989 report, issued by the D.C. Committee on Public Education, or COPE--a blue-ribbon commission convened to study the school system-recommended that the district reduce its non-instructional staff by 400 positions and use the estimated $8.5 million in annual savings to shore up the schools.

A year later, the mayor’s Commission on Budget and Financial Priorities called for eliminating 800 non-school-based personnel.

But the high-powered committees of civic, business, and educational leaders could only cajole and advocate--they could not act. And between 1989 and 1991, the size of the bureaucracy actually grew, rather than shrunk.

It is in this highly politicized and charged atmosphere that Mr. Smith now finds himself.

Hired by unanimous consent of the school board, the superintendent arrived in July with one overwhelming mandate: Downsize the central administration and make it more responsive to schools.

A National Trend

The story of Mr. Smith’s uphill battle illustrates a fight that is being waged around the country.

School bureaucracies that mushroomed during the 1970’s and 80’s now are being forced to scale back in the wake of fiscal crises, public outrage, and a philosophy that places more emphasis on individual schools and less on mandates from above.

In the past two years, such urban districts as Chicago, Dallas, Rochester, N.Y., Los Angeles, and San Diego--as well as their suburban counterparts in places like Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia have all moved to reduce the size of their central offices and decentralize management functions.

In the process, they have confronted a number of similar problems.

They include rigid civil-service protections and weak evaluation systems that make it difficult to fire anybody; inadequate databases that make it hard to keep track of employees; disagreements about who counts as central-office personnel; and old-fashioned, bureaucratic recalcitrance.

“Everyone is grappling with questions of how you get money from nonteaching to teaching areas,” said Lawrence S. Herman, a partner with the management-consulting firm of Peat Marwick, which conducted the analysis for the COPE report.

In the District of Columbia, he added, “they’re so overstaffed centrally, it’s not even a close call.”

‘Fundamentally Unnecessary’

According to the Peat Marwick study, Washington’s schools spent 6 percent less on instructional services and 8 percent more on non-instructional services in 1988 than did any of the surrounding jurisdictions or eight comparable urban areas.

That 8 percent difference amounted to about $50 million a year that could otherwise have been spent directly on schools.

The system also had more nonschool-based personnel than any other district in the sample and a much higher concentration of central-office employees.

‘They didn’t find anyone who literally was doing nothing,” Mr. Herman said. “Many people had too much work to do and were doing overtime.”

But, he added, “What they were doing was fundamentally unnecessary to run the school system.”

‘A Humiliation’

In fact, the study suggested, the sheer number of central-office workers and the narrow range of their responsibilities resulted in excessive layers of management, delays in decision making, and a proliferation of paperwork.

Requests for basic materials took an average of 85 days to process. Building repairs required at the beginning of the school year remained unfinished by year’s end.

“Both teachers and principals spoke of having to plead and lobby for materials and supplies from the central office that, in turn, causes them to spend a great deal of time responding to edicts and directives,” the COPE report stated.

“We found a central office that today is neither efficient nor effective,” it continued. ‘it is simply nonresponsive to schools and their needs.”

What the report failed to capture, observers suggest, was the bureaucratic culture that pervades the Presidential Building.

In a city where government has always been a major employer, the school system has served as much as an employment agency as a service provider, these critics maintain. And they contend that, in the eyes of many school officials, the closer one gets to “downtown,” the better.

The local government’s importance as an employer of Washington’s sizable black middle class, in particular, leaves the city with a “serious problem” when it comes to downsizing, said Delabian L. Rice-Thurston, the executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, a local advocacy group.

“The reality is that these people, who are well trained ... are not going to be readily absorbed by the downtown office market,” she said. “And this is really going to be a very difficult time for the black community, and for black middle-class people, if the major source of employment is drying up and other ones are not there.”

“The sad thing is that, in this system, to leave central office to become a principal is considered a humiliation and a denigration,” Mary Levy, the legal counsel for Parents United, added. “The attitude here is that going back to the schools is like going back to the steel mill or the coal mines.”

Hired, Not Fired

Since the release of the COPE report more than two years ago, the school board has issued a series of directives to streamline the bureaucracy.

But translating those orders into reality has not been easy.

Shortly after taking office in 1988, former Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins, a long-time school-district insider, promised to cut the number of administrators on his staff.

A graduate of Spingarn High School here and a veteran of the system’s bureaucratic wars, Mr. Jenkins pledged to eliminate up to 250 central-office positions, at a yearly savings of $5 million.

In June 1989, he announced that he would ship 75 officials back to the schools. He also pledged to offer an early-retirement plan and to phase in a school-based-management system.

Last year, Mr. Jenkins was fired for reneging on his promises.

“Mr. Jenkins totally disregarded the board’s mandate,” said Karen Shook, the chairman of the school board’s finance committee. ‘in fact, people were being hired, we learned later.”

Most of the employees who were sent out to the schools managed to find their way back to board headquarters. Those who remained in the schools had vague, unspecified roles.

The school system--which began the 1988 fiscal year with some 1,450 central-office employees ended Mr. Jenkins’s tenure with roughly 1,600 of them, according to Parents United.

And, in a highly embarrassing episode, the district was discovered to have fewer than 81,000 pupils--rather than the 88,000 it had been claiming for budget purposes.

It was this revised student estimate that led the Commission on Budget and Financial Priorities, formed last year by newly elected Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, to double the previous recommendations for administrative cutbacks.

‘My Eyes Popped’

At the same time, declining revenues led the city council to cut $11.1 million from the school system’s fiscal 1991 budget and to maintain approximately the same level of funding into fiscal 1992.

The Mayor also mandated that the school district reduce the number of its personnel.

Faced with no alternatives and struggling to save its reputation, the school board decided to take another crack at the problem.

In February, it directed William H. Brown, then the acting superintendent, to abolish 75 administrative posts.

Mr. Brown, another school-district veteran, responded by doing away with 75 vacant positions. On paper, this saved the system money that had been budgeted, but it did nothing to reduce the monthly payroll.

“Frankly, my eyes popped out when I saw that all of the first 75 positions cut were vacant positions,” Jay Silberman, a member of the school beard, said.

In addition, Parents United estimated that at least 25 of the vacant posts were actually school-based, including educational aides, and not central -administration jobs.

“The school administration has developed a plan to cut 75 administrative positions, and all of them happen to be vacant,” chided Representative Dean A. Gallo of New Jersey, the ranking Republican on the appropriations subcommittee for the District of Columbia, during a hearing on Capitol Hill. “I don’t see that as belt-tightening.”

The apparent inability, or unwillingness, of school-system veterans to fire their colleagues led the school board to hire as its new superintendent a total outsider, something it had done only once before.

“My own view is that an error in judgment was made in expecting that a person who had been in the system for as long as Superintendent Jenkins was in the system could come up with 400 people to dismiss,” said Conrad Snowden, the executive director of cops.

According to the school board’s president, R. David Hall, substantial progress has been made since Mr. Smith’s arrival. “It’s not difficult [to make such cuts],” he said last month. “It’s a matter of getting an administration that wants to do it .... What this system was lacking was a good manager in the superintendent’s office.”

‘Lead Principals’

Since July, Superintendent Smith, who had been schools chief in Dayton, Ohio, has taken steps to show that he is serious about curbing the central office and reaching out to schools.

One such move was to elevate six principals to join his cabinet as “lead principals.” It was the first time that school-based administrators were appointed to that group. Mr. Smith also eliminated the assistant superintendents’ posts for elementary and secondary education, which had overseen the schools.

Constance Clark, the former director of the elementary-schools division and one of the 18 officials reassigned in last summer’s shakeup, is now the principal at Kimball Elementary School and one of the lead principals.

These principals are to remain in charge of their own schools, while also serving as a link between clusters of other principals and the superintendent.

The precise role of the lead principals is still being worked out, and the local administrators’ union has opposed a proposal that they be involved in evaluating other principals. But school people say the change is making a difference.

Last month, one principal said, she sat in a meeting where the principals set the agenda. “I’ve been a principal for 25 years,” she said, “and that was the first time that anyone ever put us together and said, ‘What are your needs?’”

‘Bad Advice’

But the results of Mr. Smith’s other efforts to trim the size of the school bureaucracy are less clear-cut.

Two weeks after his arrival, the superintendent announced that he was eliminating 79 central-office pests.

This time, only 20 of the positions were vacant. The rest were held by employees who were retiring; people in “temporary” positions, who lacked many of the school system’s employment protections; and 17 administrators with tenure.

The latter included many of the non-instructional personnel that Mr. Smith attempted to shift back to the schools.

But it soon became apparent that there were problems with the list.

Maurice Sykes, who heads the district’s early-childhood-education program, received a notice that the communications job he had held three years earlier was being eliminated. The Washington Post promptly reported that he was being fired. Today, Mr. Sykes says, “I’m alive and well .... I never was terminated.’'

“It just all sort of got out of hand,” he added. “They were deleting a position that was on the books, but I no longer sat in it.”

Gilbert L. Hoffman, the director of the educational accountability and planning division and a 25-year veteran, returned from vacation to discover that he had been fired.

In fact, Mr. Smith intended to appoint him to his cabinet, where he serves today. But Mr. Hoffman received the dismissal notice before that was made clear.

“I think there was a lot of bad advice about who, if dropped, could remain dropped,” said Mr. Snowden of COPE, who noted that Mr. Smith had been in his job for only two weeks when the list went out.

How Much Is Real?

Since his arrival, Mr. Smith told the city council this month, he has eliminated a total of 144 non-school-based positions, the majority of which were administrative jobs.

Moreover, he claims that he has not added a single administrative position in the course of his restructuring, although some jobs have been “reclassified.”

But critics of the school system remain dubious that much downsizing has occurred.

They point to inconsistencies between the system’s most recent list of job changes and earlier documents.

They argue that at least 225 school-based positions have also been eliminated since January-even though the school board maintains that not a single instructional position has been touched.

And they question just how much bureaucratic fat has been cut when almost no middle-management employees have actually left the payroll.

“The conclusion I come to, looking at all this data, is that I still don’t see a significant--if any--reduction in central administration or in the middle-management levels,” said Jim Ford, the staff director for the city council’s education committee.

“The system is in chaos,” Mr. Snowden of COPE said. “I met with the president of the board, and even he’s confused about how many positions we are eliminating, how many people are in those positions.”

“I have to see how much of this is real,” said Mr. Snowden, who is nonetheless hopeful about the end result.

‘Bumping’ Rights

The reasons it is so hard to pin down what is happening stem from systemic problems that predate Mr. Smith’s tenure and that are found in many large school systems. Foremost is the civil-service practice known as “bumping.”

Under such a policy, when an employee’s job is eliminated, he can simply “jump” down to the last position in which he obtained tenure and “jump” out a less senior person who has that job even if the incumbent has a superior performance record.

If the person bumped is also tenured, he can do the same. The resulting domino effect can last for months, making it difficult to determine exactly who has been let go. Ultimately, newly hired teachers may end up being the only employees who are fired.

In the District of Columbia, school system employees are governed under two separate personnel systems: Some are under the same civil-service schedule as other city workers; instructional employees, including many administrators, are under the “educational service,” which is unique to the school system.

Mr. Silberman of the school board argues that administrators in this latter group do not, in fact, have extensive “jumping” rights, thus enabling the superintendent to “surgically pare” the workforce if he chooses.

But Mr. Smith said he was taking no chances that he might wind up facing a lawsuit from a terminated employee-particularly when the school district lacks reliable evaluation records for much of its staff.

“There are no accurate records that you can go in and depend on in terms of who should be ‘rifled’ and who shouldn’t be ‘rifled,’ “he asserted last month, “and who has the legal backing to protect them.”

As a result, he has chosen to eliminate positions strictly by the book: taking an ax first to positions that are vacant, then getting rid of workers who are retiring, next turning to temporary positions, and only then targeting tenured employees.

To date, only 38 people have actually been let go because of the “reduction in force,” or “rifting,” procedure. And out of those, only 10 can be even loosely classified as “middle management,” according to Ms. Levy of Parents United, including an accountant, an administrative assistant, an “education-research technician,” an “instructional-services specialist,"a “program monitor,” and a “program analyst.”

One central-office administrator, who asked not to be identified, said: “I think most administrators and supervisors who are not in the schools feel that many of those persons who supposedly were downsized or cut were not. They were just moved, and they will probably get the same salary.”

“Basically,” the administrator added, “the feeling is things haven’t really changed.”

The district is also offering several bonus plans to individuals who agree to retire early or who are already at retirement age as one way to downsize while minimizing layoffs.

But it is unclear how many central-office employees will take advantage of the offers, or how many of those will be in “essential” positions that need to be refilled.

In its presentation to the city council this month, the school board concluded that the incentives are unlikely to result in any real savings, although they could hold down spending in future years.

Impact Unknown

Mr. Smith also inherited a management-information system and a personnel division that some observers describe as a “disaster.”

Three separate divisions--budget, finance, and personnel--keep records on employees. And on any given day, because there is no centralized database, those records are liable to conflict.

“My guess is that Peat Marwick knows how many employees the school system has,” Mr. Herman, the management consultant, said. “The school district doesn’t.”

By law, the school district is supposed to submit an annual list to the Congress that includes every one of its positions by job title and salary.

But some of the lists of personnel reductions that have been released by the school administration include employee numbers with no job titles and job positions that have never shown up on the Congressional lists.

The speculation of observers is that many of the positions were “temporary” ones, created by the school system as the need arose and never formally approved.

Mr. Smith says he is trying to get a handle on such problems.

For the first time, he has placed the divisions of personnel, budget, and finance under one official. Now, when figures do not “jibe,” he noted, “you’ve got them all sitting there in one meeting.”

But until Mr. Smith can provide assurances that temporary positions are not being created freely, as they were in the recent past, the school district’s claims remain open to challenge, its critics say.

“Right now, most of the people who did all these things are still in place,” Ms. Levy of Parents United said. “We have a new superintendent, yes. He’s brought in a few new people at the top, yes. But then, there’s everybody else. And you know, we’ve heard these promises before.”

Rationale Missing

In addition, Parents United maintains, “we cannot discern any educational or organizational plan” that is driving Mr. Smith’s actions.

“All we can see is the elimination of vacant positions and of jobs that are temporary or occupied by employees with temporary status,” the group said in a statement.

The advocacy group has urged that outside experts be brought in to help with the downsizing process.

Mr. Silberman of the school board has similarly advocated that the district undertake a “functional management audit ... to really see where we have overlapping staff functions, and where we are inefficiently allocating resources.”

But Mr. Smith said such an audit would be premature, since some functions may no longer exist after his reorganization is completed.

“I recognized that, initially, there were going to be some mistakes,” he added. “But if I waited until I got everything balanced, it would be a year and a half... and I’d still be here talking about how to downsize rather than downsizing.”

‘Everything at Once’

Even if Mr. Smith succeeds in eliminating 144 non-school-based positions, most people said, more remains to be done.

Many of the 400 jobs identified by the COPE report in 2989 have still not been touched. Additional recommendations that the school system consider contracting out its food and building-maintenance services also have not been addressed.

In addition, the revised student estimates indicate that the system may have as many as 250 excess senior-high-school teachers--an issue that would be even harder to touch than firing central-office personnel.

In fact, about the only sure result of Mr. Smith’s efforts so far is anxiety.

“Everybody is operating with a feeling of concern at this time, because they cannot be certain when that hammer will hit them,” said Frank T. Bolden, the president of the Council of School Officers, which represents district administrators.

Whether the downsizing and restructuring being attempted by Mr.

Smith will have any real effect on schools remains to be seen.

So far, principals have gained the ability to make modest purchases of materials directly, to contract out for minor building repairs, and to have some modicum of control over the custodians who work in their buildings--procedures all begun under Mr. Smith’s predecessors.

In addition, under Mr. Jenkins, 27 schools began an experiment in school-based management, although observers say there are no indications that anything of substance has changed in those schools.

Whether Mr. Smith can inspire greater confidence and autonomy on the part of principals is still unclear. And whether he can shift priorities away from the Presidential Building and back to students is even more difficult to predict.

“The trouble is that the school system is not in business to give people jobs,” Ms. Levy said. “It is in business to educate and nourish and care for children.”

“And, unfortunately,” she added, “it’s still a system where, when there’s a conflict, kids lose.”

Just last week, Mr. Smith said he had received statements indicating that the majority of the 28 administrators whom he had attempted to shift back to the schools would be retiring. As of Dec. 31, he said, they will no longer be on the payroll.

But for now, the school district continues to carry the “double cost” of paying their salaries and providing acting principals and assistant principals to take their places.

“That’s D.C.,” Mr. Smith said. But, he added, “I’m determined we’re going to get there. We’re going to get through this.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Effort To Cut Back D.C.'s Bureaucracy Proves Nettlesome