In San Diego, Managers Forging ‘Service’ Role

By Lynn Olson — March 08, 1989 17 min read

San Diego--From the outside, this school district’s boxy pale-orange headquarters, sitting squatly in the California sunshine, looks like the very embodiment of the old factory model of schooling.

But inside the administrative offices for the San Diego Unified School District word has gone out that the prior rules for working with schools no longer apply.

Approximately 35 schools in this 117,000-student district are in the process of “restructuring” their programs: making any changes deemed necessary to improve student learning.

And the central-office staff members who oversee those schools--and all 118 others in the district--have been warned that they, too, are expected to change.

Instead of serving as the monitors and enforcers of district policy, these middle managers are to become the “enablers” and “facilitators” of reform.

All parts of the organization need to devise new ways of doing business, explains Ruben A. Carriedo, assistant superintendent for planning, research, and evaluation. “We can’t just expect it from our schools.”

Eventually, district leaders hope to provide all schools here with greater flexibility and autonomy.

San Diego’s effort to rethink the operation not just of individual schools but of the entire school-district bureaucracy points to a central dilemma in the restructuring movement.

Most of the literature on restructuring has focused on the individual school as the locus of change. Unless teachers and principals at each site are intimately involved in redesigning their programs and curriculum, the argument goes, nothing of real significance will occur.

But increasingly, experts have come to believe that changes within schools cannot be sustained without equally fundamental reforms in district-level management.

The central office “should be a service center, not a command post barking orders,” argue David T. Kearns and Denis P. Doyle in their book, Winning the Brain Race: A Bold Plan to Make Our Schools Competitive.

In addition to trimming the number of middle managers, the authors write, school systems should direct those who remain to “act less like controllers and more like colleagues and collaborators.”

Yet how to bring about such changes in large bureaucracies is far from clear.

Some districts involved in restructuring have encountered resistance from middle managers who are worried about job security. In others, district leaders have created new bureaucracies that temporarily bypass the existing managerial structure.

San Diego has decided to confront the dilemma head-on.

Central-office personnel have been told they must work both with restructuring and nonrestructuring schools. And they must do so within the existing bureaucracy.

“We made a conscious decision to have this happen as an integral part of the organization,” says Bertha O. Pendleton, the deputy superintendent. And that, she says, means changing the roles and responsibilities of central-office staff members.

“Their behavior is probably required to change more than anybody else’s,” she notes, “because they have been the controllers, the monitors, the protectors of the system.”

Last summer, Superintendent of Schools Thomas W. Payzant informed his staff that no one, with the exception of himself and the deputy superintendent, could reject an innovative plan proposed by a school.

The role of the central office, he argued, was to assist, not to condemn.

The statement was one that middle managers found less than reassuring.

“There was a lot of alarm,” recalls George H. Russell, assistant superintendent for personnel services. “If you tell a central-office manager that he can’t say ‘no’ to a school--well, there were a lot of questions. ‘What are we going to be doing if we can’t say ‘no’?”

“I was worried,” remembers Timothy Allen, director of second-language education for the district. “It seemed to me that it would be a very school-focused initiative. There really was not, as I saw it, a clear role for the central office.”

Tensions were heightened because of the district’s history. When Mr. Payzant took charge in 1982, one of his first acts was to reorganize the bureaucracy so that elementary, middle, and high schools would all be under the same administrative structure.

The reorganization saved the district $1 million, he says, and cut a number of central-office positions in the process.

There was at least some suspicion that under restructuring that would be repeated, Ms. Pendleton says.

Within the business community, for example, restructuring has become a code word for flattening out corporate heirarchies and doing away with middle management.

"[M]ost of our excellent companies have comparatively few people at the corporate level, and ... what staff there is tends to be out in the field solving problems, rather than in the home office checking on things,” observe Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. in their book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies. “The bottom line is fewer administrators, more operators.”

Recalls Assistant Superintendent Russell: “Folks had not spent a lot of time thinking about the fact that changes were needed in the central office. They started looking around and saying, ‘Well, is my job one that’s not going to be necessary as more authority is placed at the school site?”’

At least for now, Mr. Payzant says, he does not plan to reduce the number of middle managers as part of restructuring.

“What I don’t want to do is communicate the message to our central-office people that they are going to be sacrified to restructuring efforts,” he argues.

Instead, the superintendent maintains, the emphasis should be on changing the roles of the existing staff.

“It’s not that we aren’t going to be needed,” agrees John E. Perko, assistant superintendent for business services. “We’re going to be needed in a different way.”

Eventually, Mr. Payzant predicts, “you could have central-office departments and divisions operating as service bureaus, where they provide services on call, or schools purchase them as needed. But I think it will be awhile before we get there.”

Since the summer, each division within the administration has held workshops and meetings for its staff to determine how they can respond to restructuring.

Already, there is an inkling of how the central office could operate differently:

Staff Development. To date, Mr. Russell notes, it has been essentially “top down.”

“The administration and the board decide they are going to put in a new program,” he says, “and then they mandate staff development tied to that program.”

In the future, predicts Mary Hopper, director of staff development and training, teachers will be more involved in planning and designing workshops. Her department is currently creating an interview process in which teams of mentor teachers would visit every school in the district to talk with educators about what training they want and need.

Maintenance. The division of business services has created an advisory committee that includes a cross-section of area principals and central-office personnel to help set its priorities. Last year, principals on the committee expressed concern about the limited funds available for school maintenance.

This year, the maintenance budget for the district has been increased by $1.5 million. Of that, $450,000 has been dispersed directly to school sites to spend as they see fit.

Assessment. To date, evaluation in San Diego has consisted primarily of student grades and standardized-test scores, says Mr. Carriedo.

Now his division is exploring ways to eliminate or consolidate some of the testing requirements, in favor of student portfolios and other sources of data.

In the future, he suggests, schools should be able to tailor assessments to their own needs, rather than being treated alike. “It’s scary to my folks,” he adds, “because it’s a very customized version of what they’ve been doing. There’s no generic model anymore.”

Textbooks. Like many large urban districts, San Diego selects and purchases its textbooks on a systemwide basis. Such bulk purchasing is economical, district managers argue, and it ensures some consistency in materials as students move from school to school.

But in the future, these same administrators anticipate that schools involved in restructuring will request the freedom to select and purchase their own reading materials--ones that more accurately reflect their students’ needs.

C. Kermeen Fristrom, director of basic education, says his department is now trying to devise some method for interested schools to use an alternative-selection procedure. But it has not yet reached a solution.

Magnet Schools. In the last five years, says George T. Frey, assistant superintendent for community relations and integration, he has had the “luxury” of sitting in his office and “creating” more than 20 magnet schools for the district. With the help of his staff, he has written the concept papers for those schools, received board approval, and hired the faculty.

Now all that is changing.

Woodrow Wilson Middle School, for example, is scheduled to become a magnet next fall. For more than a year, teachers there have been meeting to determine what they want the program focus to be. They are also reorganizing the school to provide a more intimate learning environment.

Mr. Frey estimates that Wilson faculty members have held at least 60 meetings to help chart the school’s future--a process that he describes as “somewhat inefficient.”

“One can argue that in the long run, if you do it from the bottom up, you’re going to achieve much more,” he says. “Well, people would have to argue with me on that point.”

Like his fellow office managers, Mr. Frey is having to “unlearn” behaviors and attitudes that once typified his job.

That kind of change, to many, has been one of the most striking features of San Diego’s initiative.

In the early 1980’s, notes Catherine Hopper, assistant superintendent for the district’s Area 1, “we were the decisionmakers and it was top-down decisionmaking, there’s no doubt about it.”

“We whipped schools into shape with our little agendas and our checkoff lists,” she says.

Now, according to Ms. Hopper, her staff members are waiting for schools to approach them with ideas and problems. And they are listening far more carefully to what school people have to say.

“It’s scary sometimes,” she admits. “It’s like raising children, when you’re so darn sure what they ought to do ... but you have to move back and let them go.”

“Some schools will make mistakes,” she adds, “but I think they’ll quickly rectify those mistakes.”

For middle managers, Ms. Pendleton notes, “there’s much less security in a restructuring mode.”

“You may not be able to use the four volumes of procedures as your bible anymore,” she says.

For example, Mr. Allen, director of second-language education, notes that “previously, I could get up in front of a group of principals and say, ‘This is what is required and this is the way you’re required to implement it.”’

“Now you think twice before you tell people what to do at a school site,” he says, “because there is a certain amount of power at the school.”

But just how far that power will extend has yet to be tested.

The school system has created a special committee, known as the Innovation and Change Leadership Group, to oversee the restructuring initiative.

Composed of an equal number of teachers and administrators, as well as representatives from the4larger community, the committee is responsible for reviewing any policy waivers proposed by individual schools and recommending approval or disapproval to the appropriate group, including the superintendent, school board, or teachers’ union.

To date, only one school--Tierrasanta Elementary--has sought and received a waiver, which will enable teachers to participate in the selection and hiring of their next principal.

But Robert B. Raines, president of the Administrators’ Association of San Diego and a member of the iclg, predicts that the requests for waivers will “snowball.”

“I think it will be a trickle at the beginning, but it’s going to speed up,” he says.

Potential areas of conflict or inconsistency within the restructuring program also are just beginning to emerge.

One is the role of centralized purchasing.

Mr. Perko, assistant superintendent for business services, says most purchasing of materials will probably remain centralized because “you can get better prices if you buy in large quantities and the purchasing laws are very restrictive.”

But Hugh P. Boyle, president of the San Diego Teachers Association, says he envisions that under restructuring districtwide purchasing would “disappear.”

The ultimate goal of many teachers, he notes, is to control the entire budgetary process at the school site, “because if we don’t, we aren’t going to go anyplace with this.”

The district has also told participating schools that they must restructure within their existing budgets. The district does not have the money to provide additional resources, according to Ms. Pendleton, who contends that restructuring initiatives will not be replicable if they require huge new outlays of funds.

But extra money is exactly what Mission Bay High School wants.

Now, students at the school begin their day at three different times, depending on whether they live in the neighborhood, are bused in, or are special-education students. To change the bus schedule so that all students could begin their day together would cost approximately $180,000.

Robert E. Engberg, a teacher at Mission Bay, claims that the change is pivotal to the school’s restructuring plans. “If we don’t get a single starting time, everything we’ve planned so far won’t fly,” he says.

But Mr. Perko predicts that the change in bus scheduling “is probably not going to happen,” in part, because of the cost.

Finally, there is the story of Kirk S. Ankeney, a teacher at Muirlands Junior High School who sits on the Innovation and Change Leadership Group.

Mr. Ankeney says teachers at his school first heard about plans to change their program from a juniorhigh to a middle school in January, when they read about it in their local newspaper. Yet the district’s area superintendent had known about the proposal since October.

The story illustrates how long it will take for the district to consult teachers before making major decisions that affect them, Mr. Ankeney says. Administrators will not automatically “wake up one morning” and change longtime patterns of operating, he suggests.

Sharon M. Jope, a teacher at Kennedy Elementary School who also sits on the Innovation and Change Leadership Group, agrees, predicting that “there are still going to be some pretty big gaffs made” before the district really moves away from top-down decisionmaking.

For their part, administrators express a mix of skepticism and enthusiasm about how well restructuring is working.

On the negative side, they question whether turning more power over to teachers and principals will necessarily improve student learning.

“Won’t it, in at least half of the cases, have the opposite effect, by allowing teachers to officially confirm the kind of teaching they’re already doing?” asks Mr. Fristrom, the director of basic education.

Central-office managers are particularly worried that teachers lack the knowledge and information needed to make the best decisions on children’s behalf. And they wonder whether schools will neglect the special needs of minority students and those with limited English proficiency, who constitute a large portion of the district’s enrollment.

District managers also complain that collaboration with restructured schools is time-consuming, because they need so much more advice and assistance than other schools.

There is a “sense of frustration” among middle managers, says Frank L. Till, assistant superintendent for educational services, as they try to give equal attention to the small group of restructured schools and the much larger group of traditional programs.

“There’s more difficulty spreading yourself out,” he says.

In addition, central-office people are struggling to maintain their own standards without reverting to the traditional “enforcer” role.

Mr. Allen, for instance, describes himself as an “advocate” for the special populations of children his department represents, including those with limited English proficiency.

“I think, ultimately, there is enforcement at some level,” he says, “but I enable more than I used to.”

Agrees Mr. Carriedo: “Just because you’re at central office, doesn’t mean you roll over” and let schools do anything they want.

“You still have to have those8same standards about what you believe in,” he argues. “You help schools work through the issues. You ask them key questions. You try to facilitate their planning ... And you always take them back to that central question: How is this related to what’s going to happen for kids?”

But Mr. Carriedo and others agree that to ensure that children benefit from restructuring, the district will have to develop a better system for holding individual schools accountable for results.

“That’s one thing I think we’ve sort of brushed over,” says Mr. Frey, the assistant superintendent for community relations and integration. “If you give people decisionmaking at the site and they can call their own shots, then accountability must follow.”

“Damn it, they ought to be accountable,” he adds. “They ought to give us something back, and there ought to be some way to measure that.”

“We’ve always had standards,” Mr. Carriedo maintains. “What’s not in place is what happens at some point when schools do not make progress.”

On the positive side, managers say, the barriers between their divisions are breaking down under restructuring. And eventually that could result in the delivery of more coordinated services.

In addition, says Ms. Pendleton, “central-office people probably have more of an opportunity to influence restructuring schools than they had previously, because now they’re invited in. People want them at the school and they’re asking for them.”

Agrees Ms. Hopper, assistant superintendent for Area 1: “The best thing that’s come out of the whole restructuring movement is the development of better working relationships: the sense of trust and cooperation that has grown between administrators, teachers, and parents.”

“To me, that’s the essence of moving away from the old industrial model of schooling,” she says.

But teachers and principals still question just how serious central-office managers are about turning over the reigns of power.

Mr. Engberg of Mission Bay High School wonders: “Is the middle management, the upper management, of this school district going to voluntarily disenfranchise itself for the good of the restructuring cause?”

Mr. Boyle, president of the teachers’ union, hopes that what the district has promised is achievable because his union’s reputation is on the line.

The San Diego Teachers Association is probably the largest affiliate of the National Education Association to provide such unqualified support for a restructuring initiative.

After years of acrimonious bargaining with district authorities, Mr. Boyle and Mr. Payzant arrived at a contract this year that both sides say signals a new era in labor-management cooperation.

The district, for example, has agreed to let the union charge agency fees to school employees who are not union members, but who benefit from collective bargaining. And the union has agreed that principals can fill a teaching position by choosing from among the top five senior people who apply for the job, rather than having to take the one person with the most seniority.

The union and the school district have also created two new committees. One, a contract-administration committee, composed of the union president, the superintendent, and two key advisors on each side, will resolve any concerns that come up during the life of the contract. That group will also review any restructuring proposals or waivers that arise as a result of restructuring.

A second “professional-growth panel” will explore ways to improve inservice training for teachers.

“I personally need this to work,” says Mr. Boyle. “My investment in it is very great.”

“While restructuring got started, things were rotten in this district,” he says. “They were as bad as they’ve been since the strike [of 1978].”

“We’ve spent so much time organizing and bargaining and raising hell,” he notes, “but now we have a four-year contract. Now’s the time when whoever takes the initiative in restructuring is going to be in control.”

For better or worse, most people agree, new arrangements in the central office are now inevitable.

“The worst position that a person could be in under restructuring is to say, ‘I’m going to defend my current direction,’ says Mr. Perko, ''because as more authority goes to the school site, if you don’t redefine your direction, your current job will not exist.”

Mr. Allen concurs. “Deep down,” he says, “everyone still wonders what restructuring means in the long run for centralized services.”

“Personally,” he adds, “I think that if we can’t find a good reason to exist centrally, then over time, we won’t.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 1989 edition of Education Week as In San Diego, Managers Forging ‘Service’ Role