School & District Management

Corporate-Style Team Sought To Take Charge of Philly District

By Karla Scoon Reid — September 06, 2000 4 min read

Rather than seek a new superintendent, the Philadelphia school board is working to assemble a corporate-style management team to lead the 217,000-student district.

As Superintendent David W. Hornbeck’s six-year tenure ended last month, the board spread his duties between two executives who will manage the district’s business and academic affairs.

Deidre R. Farmbry, a veteran Philadelphia educator, will serve as the chief academic officer. Along with chief operating and financial officers who were appointed in May, she will report to an interim chief executive officer, whom the board hopes to name by the end of the month. The board is screening regional candidates for the position of interim CEO and intends to conduct a national search to fill the post permanently.

“Our objective is to have a chief executive officer who is responsible for managing the district in a way that focuses and leverages all district resources toward our core mission of educating children,” Pedro Ramos, the president of the school board, said recently.

Philadelphians greeted the decision to abandon the traditional superintendency with both optimism and some apprehension.

“The superintendent job in an urban district is so monumental,” said Nancy J. McGinley, the executive director of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit organization. “It might be that we’re at a time that a team approach will work better.”

But educators won’t be pleased with a “bottom-line person,” cautioned Ms. McGinley, a former Philadelphia principal.

“Frankly, they need a CEO who will be respectful of people who have firsthand knowledge of what works in the classroom,” she said.

Cohesion Needed

Establishing a cohesive administrative team could be difficult since the players will be selected without the new executive, said Sam Katz, the chief executive officer of Greater Philadelphia First, a coalition of businesses that helped raise $100 million for Philadelphia schools.

“This is not the way a business functions,” Mr. Katz said. “That’s the inverse way of doing it.”

Mr. Katz, a Republican who was narrowly defeated for mayor by Democrat John F. Street last year, said the board might find a business executive who can pull the administration together. But the task will be difficult, he said, because the schools chief will have only temporary control.

For Ms. Farmbry, 48, a former Philadelphia teacher, principal, and administrator, the new position of academic chief was more appealing than serving as a superintendent, she said, because it plays to her strengths: curriculum and instruction.

“There are competing and conflicting demands in the traditional role of a superintendent,” she said. “This provides the opportunity to focus in one area.”

The new structure is similar to those in Chicago and San Diego, where the districts’ business and academic functions have been separated. It marks the latest change in Philadelphia.

Voters last fall gave the city’s new mayor the power to appoint school board members concurrent with his term. In the past, mayors had to work with board members selected by previous administrations. Mayor Street then appointed former board member Debra Kahn as his education secretary to serve as a liaison between the board and the city government.

Mr. Ramos called the administrative shake-up inevitable.

“To expect one person to provide educational leadership to the district and also have the burden of running an organization this size, that is bigger than most companies CEOs are in charge of—something has to suffer,” he said.

Relations with State

To many observers, however, what suffered most during Mr. Hornbeck’s six-year tenure was the district’s relationship with key politicians in the state capital. Mr. Hornbeck’s constant battling with the legislature and Gov. Tom Ridge for more money featured lawsuits and charges that the state’s school funding system is racist.

Test scores in the district are up, but money woes, including a multimillion-dollar budget crisis that threatened to shut down the district this year, haven’t improved. Mr. Hornbeck resigned in June, just days after Mr. Street made a budget deal with Gov. Ridge that avoided a state takeover.

Under the new arrangement, Mr. Ramos said, the board and mayor will take care of lobbying.

Although the Republican governor is hopeful the changes will boost achievement, titles alone won’t spark improvement, said Gretchen Toner, his spokeswoman.

“Of course, the new structure is inseparable from the people who will make it up,” she said. “So it’s hard to pass judgment until the new CEO is in charge.”

For the city’s teachers, whose union is negotiating a contract, the management team remains removed from daily concerns.

“I don’t think governance is the issue,” said Barbara Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “It’s getting resources into the classroom.”

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