Shuffling the Schools' Bureaucracy

April 10, 1994|By MIKE BOWLER

Here we go again. Baltimore schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey has launched a "major, major reorganization from the top down," starting with the demotion of his two deputies.

Baltimoreans will be forgiven if they yawn. We've heard this before, about how moving the bodies about at North Avenue (or 25th Street) was going to "facilitate the continued development of quality instruction," "create effective communication and coordination" and "bring schools closer to the people."

Those aren't the words of Dr. Amprey. They were written by the late Roland N. Patterson 24 years ago this month. Since then, Baltimore's central office staff has been shuffled at least 11 times, each with a new organizational chart.

Dr. Patterson's methods were quite severe. He forced everyone at 25th Street to resign, then reapply for their jobs. Many retired or refused to reapply. When Dr. Patterson himself was fired, the school board rated him "well below adequate" in "developing staff morale."

His four successors were not nearly so cruel, and each presented a slightly different rationale for reorganizing. Richard C. Hunter, Dr. Amprey's predecessor, said he did it to save money -- $4 million, he said, in two shake-ups.

Dr. Amprey, who is shifting funds and authority from the central office to the schools in a major decentralization, said last week, "We need to move all we can to the schools."

But it's hard to see how demoting his top two aides is going to shift anything to the schools. Neither Patsy Baker Blackshear, who has been trying to bring a concept called "total quality management" to a system short on quality, nor Lillian Gonzalez, who oversees instruction, is likely to be seen teaching in a Baltimore school next fall, and both (if they stay) will continue to draw their salaries.

But rare is the CEO in education or any other enterprise who tells the truth about staff reorganization: that it's to consolidate power; to move the last guy's people out and your guys in; to show that you're a "change agent," not someone who's going to sit there and do things the way they've always been done.

"It's a power play," J. Edward Andrews Jr., former Montgomery ** County superintendent, once said. "It says to everyone, 'I'm the boss now, and you'd better be good.' When it happens, a lot of the survivors stick their heads in the sand and tell themselves, 'We'll wait for the next one.' "

There are two sides to the coin of reorganization. It is politically risky in a city like Baltimore, because those who are demoted (people in education are seldom laid off) often have the ear of powerful legislators and community leaders. That may explain why Dr. Amprey took nearly three years to make what he describes as "drastic moves." He is a careful man who has earned a reputation for looking carefully before he leaps.

But though it is risky, reorganization is also relatively easy. The public and state legislators tend to blame the bureaucracy for the malaise in the schools. In reorganizing, the superintendent can say, "Look at me, folks! I'm doing something here at North Avenue, cutting down on this bureaucracy, moving it back to the schools, getting rid of the deadwood!"

But actually improving the instruction in city schools is something else. That takes years to accomplish, many more years than most superintendents have, and even then it's difficult to judge success.

Reorganization is quick -- down and dirty. In Baltimore, there seems no end to it.

Mike Bowler is editor of the Other Voices page of The Evening Sun and author of "The Lessons of Change: Baltimore Schools in the Modern Era."

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