Funds, Legal Woes Vex Officials
Atlantic City, N.J.--In this town where the clicking of dice signals the ever-present possibility of good fortune, school leaders from across the country gathered last month to discuss a host of unpleasant realities.
Although guest speakers, like U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and the futurist Marvin Cetron, urged the more than 14,000 members of the American Association of School Adminstrators to rally around the convention's call for a "Quest for Quality," the administrators were preoccupied with the more immediate problems of budgets and unions and court decisions. But they found that those they sought out for help in crowded problem-solving sessions were often as stymied as their listeners by the burdens of educational management in the 1980's.
"I don't know any good way to help people close their high schools,'' said Richard R. Green, superintendent of schools in Minneapolis, during a meeting on school closings.
Mr. Green has overseen the closing of 18 schools, including three high schools, since he took his job in 1980. "The toughest ones were the high schools--knowing it was the last time students would ever walk through the doors of Central, of Marshall, and West. ...," he said.
Mr. Green was joined by Boston's superintendent, Robert Spillane. When Mr.Spillane took office in 1981, 27 schools were being closed and 1,500 teachers were being laid off. "You could have closed anything and nobody would have noticed, the district was in so much disarray," he said.
Mr. Spillane called the art of coping with school closings "a new educational technology" and warned against the misconception, often held by parents and others, that closings will bring lower school costs and lower ratios of teachers and pupils. In Boston, the closings "translated into a considerably higher cost for each pupil," he said.
Both officials, however, had concrete suggestions about how to guide a district through the school-closing "trauma."
Mr. Spillane warned that when a district contracts for the crucial demographic studies of the neighborhood that will help decide which schools to eliminate, officials must choose an outside firm with absolute credibility that is in no way affiliated with the school district or any of its administrators.
Mr. Green advised the administrators not to bear the brunt of the process alone, but to bring in every group in the community, from businesses to senior citizens. He said his district (where only 17 percent of the households have children of school age), had distributed response sheets door to door throughout Minneapolis seeking suggestions on neighborhood planning. In addition, the district has retained an advertising agency to help with a marketing campaign to reach out to the community.
Two members of the Minneapolis school board who oversaw the 18 school closings said board members must act in unity and never change their minds, after selecting the buildings to be closed. "Once you make your decision, don't look back," warned Philip Olson, a 10-year board veteran. "The wolves are ready to snap at your heels. If you change your mind, you're dead."
The aasa members also sought advice on the wide array of legal issues they now confront--in particular, those surrounding the federal special-education law and its regulations.
"What happens when a school is told a child has to see a psychiatrist every day in order to be educated? Who pays?" asked one superintendent in a jammed forum on school law. "Is there a distinction between educational and noneducational services?"
"Special education is the hottest topic in school law," said Jerome N. Robbins, one of four lawyers present from the Chicago firm of Robbins, Schwartz, Nicholas, Lifton, and Taylor. "It's an extremely difficult area. The courts are quite willing to make the schools pay."
Administrators wanted to know whether the "related services" called for under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, P.L. 94-142, include expensive special needs such as psychiatry, or catheterizing during school hours, and if so, whether the law specifies who is to pay.
The lawyers replied that the courts have ruled that catheterizing should be paid for by the schools, but that responsibilty for psychiatry bills is still unclear.
Many also asked about their rights to suspend or expel special-education students who are dangerous or who pose disciplinary problems. "What happens if you try to expel an emotionally disturbed child who is wielding a knife," asked one administrator. "You can't send him home because the state law says that can only be temporary. So what do you do?" Another asked what happens if parents do not agree to a new, more restricted place of instruction.
"The area is a quagmire," conceded one of the lawyers. They said that under federal law parents must have a say, but that the initial decision as to where a handicapped child can best be taught is a joint decision by the district's assessment team.
In the event that parents disagree with the decision and call for an independent hearing, or even appeal to the courts, the lawyers cautioned, judges are likely to favor them over school officials. "You're fighting an uphill battle," said Mr. Robbins.
More negative news for conference participants came in a research report about collective bargaining delivered by Steven M. Goldschmidt, associate professor of educational policy and management at the University of Oregon at Eugene.
Mr. Goldschmidt, who served for four years as a member of the Oregon Employment Relations Board, said his study was based on a survey of union contracts of 80 large school districts with 15,000 students or more. The districts represent 30 percent of all districts of that size in states that require or permit collective bargaining.
The report focused on how often bargaining agreements encroach on school-policy areas such as curriculum and class size. It predicted that the encroachments would increase in districts with diminishing funds, where administrators may be forced to bargain with their school's policies. "The union is going to win more and more in policy because there will be less and less [to win] in money," Mr. Goldschmidt said.
He found that 46 percent of the contracts gave unions a voice in regulating curricula, 51 percent gave them a voice in the assigment of students to teachers, and 41 percent included provisions limiting class size. Regulation of curricula included decisions on teaching methods and materials on the types of programs to be offered.
Mr. Goldschmidt offered little in the way of advice when superintendents asked him to suggest a counter strategy. He warned that schools need to adapt to changes in educational techniques and to changes in their communities. In fact, schools have succeeded in the past largely because they could change.
On the other hand, teachers' unions value consistency and uniformity. They want to centralize--to bargain on a district basis and even on a regional basis, he contended. As a result, he said, policies are hardening and "schools have lost a substantial ability to adapt to their communities."