Recruitment & Retention

Politics of Jobs In City Schools Hinder Reform

By Caroline Hendrie — March 26, 1997 8 min read
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Patricia C. Conn remembers delivering a clear message to the Richmond, Va., board of education when she interviewed for the job of schools chief in 1995: If you choose me, you choose change.

“I said I’m a transformational change agent,” Ms. Conn recalled. “They said: ‘Oh, yes, that’s what we’ve been looking for.’”

The enthusiasm didn’t last long.

As Ms. Conn began to restructure the district’s bureaucracy, her efforts to shuffle personnel--be they principals or secretaries--prompted complaints from her bosses on the school board, she said.

Before long, board members had stripped Ms. Conn of her authority to transfer staff members without their explicit approval. In January, they took the unusual step of suspending her for 45 days, citing insubordination. Six weeks later, they voted to buy out her four-year contract only 19 months after she had arrived.

It seemed to Ms. Conn that everybody was for reform--until it started threatening people’s jobs.

“Here’s an educator literally stopped dead in her tracks for trying to do the job she was supposed to do,” said Robert S. Peterkin, the director of Harvard University’s Urban Superintendents Program, from which Ms. Conn earned a doctorate in 1993.

The situation in Richmond is not unique.

As discontent with urban schools has mounted, so too have the pressures to turn them around. City schools chiefs such as Ms. Conn are routinely brought in with a stated mandate to fix systems widely perceived to be broken.

Increasingly, such mandates have come backed by dramatic changes in governance that endow schools chiefs with authority customarily held by elected school boards. These include full or partial takeovers by the state, the mayor, or in the case of the District of Columbia, the federal government.

But even these newly empowered administrators--like many of their counterparts in more traditional settings--are encountering ingrained intolerance for change.

Perhaps nowhere is that resistance more evident than when it comes to the issue of jobs.

‘Don’t Rock the Boat’

To satisfy demands for improvement, superintendents often feel the need to bring in their own people, transfer or lay off workers, and require more of employees at all levels.

But many find that the politics of personnel quickly catch up with them.

“It’s a culture of insulating the institution,” said Philip E. Geiger, the president and chief operating officer of Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives Inc., a company that had troubled stints running public schools in Baltimore and Hartford, Conn. “Once you’re in, if you want to stay in, part of the rules are you don’t rock the boat.”

Even for schools chiefs with strong backing from their bosses, playing God with people’s livelihoods can make it tough to stay popular.

No one knows that better than Beverly L. Hall.

Ms. Hall, a veteran New York City educator, was brought into Newark, N.J., in 1995 as part of the state’s third takeover of a big-city school system. (“State-Appointed Newark Chief Vows To Improve Condition of Buildings,” Aug. 2, 1995.)

Among the district’s myriad problems was its decades-long tradition of serving as a patronage-driven jobs mill.

Ms. Hall addressed the problem by laying off 634 noninstructional employees last summer. She rerouted the $26.3 million in savings to full-day kindergarten, security, alternative education, and substance-abuse prevention.

Motives Questioned

The outcry was immediate. Taking to the streets in protest, workers and community activists scoffed at Ms. Hall’s claim that she was putting children first. How are children helped, they asked, by throwing their parents on the street?

Since the layoffs in July, meetings of Newark’s purely advisory school board have become raucous affairs. Much of the hostility, Ms. Hall believes, stems from her challenge to the district’s traditional ways.

“For three or four generations, people benefited from knowing someone on the school board,” she said. “But I have to look at the bigger picture and ask: What is the mission of the school system? Is it to be the employer of last resort or is it to provide the kind of environment that will allow the youngsters to compete in the 21st century?”

As rocky as things have been, Ms. Hall knows that working directly for the state has helped.

“I did not have to contend with the political machinery in the city or the school board,” she pointed out. “If I had to contend with a board, we would still be talking about reorganization.”

Pressure is Constant

In taking a hands-on approach toward personnel matters, which is often perceived by administrators as meddling, some urban board members feel they are simply responding to political reality. After all, the pressure to take a keen interest in the payroll is often intense.

Media-savvy activists agitate for jobs and promotions for their particular racial or ethnic group. Unions, often highly active in board elections, push hard for their interests, as do veteran employees within the system.

Parents often harbor strong views about staffing at their local schools, and they, too, know how to remind board members of upcoming elections.

And in some cases, it is simply an unspoken rule of the prevailing political culture that board members will use their pull to land jobs or promotions for neighbors, friends, or even family.

Whatever their source, these forces often prove a stumbling block for superintendents.

“The sad thing is that most of the people being lobbied for are usually people you really don’t want,” said Walter G. Amprey, the outgoing superintendent in Baltimore. “Then you get faced with the decision of whether you want to win this battle or win the overall war. It’s something we all face.”

Struggle in Sacramento

The ways superintendents handle such pressures can make or break their broader educational agendas--and determine how long a chance they get to put those agendas into action.

Terry Grier found that out in 1994, after he left Akron, Ohio, to head the 51,000-student school system in Sacramento, Calif.

Seventeen months after his arrival, he was out. And among the deciding factors in his fall were clashes over jobs.

Mr. Grier, whose ouster prompted a political backlash against his opponents on the board, said his job was doomed after he refused to hire an educator who had been a board member’s friend since college. Not long after Mr. Grier’s departure, the man was hired to head the district’s personnel department.

“Who got what job--that was the entire crux of the matter,” said Mr. Grier, who now heads the 16,500-student Williamson County district outside Nashville, Tenn.

To Waldemar Rojas, San Francisco’s superintendent, no schools chief should be surprised by the kind of pressure Mr. Grier describes.

“Education is a political system,” he said. “Most of what we do as superintendents is political, unfortunately.”

Still, he said, superintendents should make their own calls as much as possible.

“You should get fired for doing it your way,” Mr. Rojas said, “instead of getting bounced for doing what everybody else wants you to do.”

Washington Resists Change

Some say that’s exactly the fate that befell Franklin L. Smith, the superintendent of the District of Columbia schools until his ouster last fall.

Not long after Congress granted Washington residents the right to elect a local school board in 1968, the city’s schools began developing a reputation as a system in which jobs for adults took precedence over services for children.

Many longtime observers of the system say that legacy was a factor in the downfall of Mr. Smith, who was hired in 1991 with a mandate for dramatic reform.

“Franklin learned quickly that meant you can do anything as long as it didn’t affect anyone with prestige in the system,” said Jim Ford, the former staff director of the City Council’s education committee. “He fell into the trap, to go along to get along.”

Mary Levy, the legal counsel to a city parents’ group that generally supported Mr. Smith, said staff members he brought in were frequently rendered ineffectual by those already in the system. Mr. Smith lost his job in November when the federal control board that oversees the city appointed an emergency board of trustees to take over the elected school board’s duties. (“Retired Army General Is Named D.C. Superintendent,” Nov. 20, 1996.)

“He ran up against one wall after another,” Ms. Levy said. “Everyone wants someone else to change, not themselves.”

No Easy Answers

Some governance experts cite a state law in Massachusetts as one tool that could help protect local schools chiefs from undue political interference. The law bars school boards from involvement in hiring decisions below the level of superintendent.

Thomas W. Payzant, the current Boston chief and a former superintendent in San Diego and elsewhere, said he has always made clear to school boards that he expects broad latitude in personnel matters.

Those efforts have been largely successful, he said. Moreover, he sees fights over jobs as often symptomatic of deeper conflicts between boards and superintendents.

Still, he said his job in Boston has been made easier by the 1993 law.

“This is my fifth superintendency, and this is the first time I’ve had autonomy on all personnel matters,” Mr. Payzant said.

Mr. Peterkin of Harvard said superintendents should take Mr. Payzant’s advice about stating their expectations up front.

But as Ms. Conn learned in Richmond, that may not be enough to prevent problems down the road.

Delores L. McQuinn, the vice chairwoman of the Richmond school board, said while board members in the Virginia district endorsed Ms. Conn’s early promises of change, they feel she failed to warn them adequately about the specifics as time went on.

“We wanted to be a progressive system,” she said. “But the head must know what the body is doing.”

Ms. Conn said she knows that her power struggle in Richmond encompassed issues other than jobs.

Her case was not helped, for example, by a much-publicized uproar over her efforts last year to crack down on the tradition of staff members calling in sick to attend an annual basketball tournament of historically black colleges.

Still, she said, “personnel issues are where you run into conflicts the most.”

“People wanted to stay where they were until they retired,” she said. “They can get to a board member, and the board member wants to please their constituents and wants to get re-elected. They say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.’ But in protecting the person, they’re impeding reform.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Conn said she hoped some good came from her short and rocky tenure.

“People are just tired of revolving door superintendents,” she said. “If nothing else, the series of events has caused citizens of Richmond to step forward and say, ‘Is there something I can do?’”


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