Opportunity for city schools

June 29, 1992

Baltimore's public schools clearly need more money, but they probably can't get more until they convince people they can manage better with the money they have. A management study of the school department, presented last week to the school board, provides an important opportunity. The study was conducted by the respected national consulting firm Towers Perrin under the sponsorship of Associated Black Charities.

The study took a broad view of management; it looked not just at whether functions are duplicated and offices overstaffed but at whether the school system can deliver the services that students need to learn. It concludes, "The fundamental relationship between the central office and the schools must be realigned."

This would mean not only eliminating 89 central administration jobs, but giving each school much more control over its budget. A middle school might decide, for example, it would rather have two more guidance counselors and two fewer security guards. And, for at least some services, schools would be free to turn to the open market in competition with the central administration.

The report calls for creating 12 "executive director" positions, each responsible for providing both monitoring and support to about 15 schools. These are similar to the six regional superintendents recently created by Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, but the consultants thought a regional superintendent could not keep a tight enough eye on the 30 or so schools under his or her control. It also calls for increased spending on staff development and management information systems, two areas where the consultants found the school system short of resources. Even with these additions, it would result in a net savings of between $1 million and $2 million a year -- money which could be used to buy sorely needed books or otherwise provide more services to students.

In its general thrust, the report is consistent with the efforts of Dr. Amprey, who has moved for regional clusters of schools, and of Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who has launched his own program of "school-based management" at 14 schools.

Details can be debated, but the school board would be well advised to begin moving quickly in the directions set out by the consultants' recommendations. It is crucial to demonstrate to the public -- and to the legislators who supply funds -- that the school system is serious about managing itself as effectively and efficiently as possible.

However, this should not be seen as a panacea for the schools' many problems. City schools have reorganized before -- many, many times. The best a reorganization can do is get the bureaucracy out of the way of delivering education. Once that is done, the job of teaching the kids well still remains.

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