New leaders, new hierarchy

The Education Beat

Changes: Each tide of school chiefs shifts the city system's structure inconsequentially.

May 08, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

I WROTE A FEW years ago that Baltimore schools have had more central office organizations than sand castles on an August day in Ocean City - with about as much lasting effect on the landscape.

In the modern era, dating to about 1970, uncounted changes in the supervisory staff have occurred. (I estimate 14 reorganizations since 1971.) The central office staff has been pulled apart and put together again, deployed to the schools and returned to headquarters, divided between elementary and secondary and returned to "K-12."

Supervisors have become managers, managers have become specialists, specialists have become directors and directors have become supervisors again. Veterans have had to reapply for their jobs a half-dozen times. But despite all of these efforts at "reform," it's still a top-down management structure with orders flowing from the few at the top, through the bureaucracy to the many at the bottom.

Walter Sondheim Jr., the grand old man of city politics and education - he's served on the city and state school boards - once said there's "built into the educational superstructure a tendency to change for change's sake. ... A new superintendent wants to show he's a change agent. He doesn't want to just stand there; he wants to do something."

In recent years, the seconds in command also have had the urge to reorganize. The current chief academic officer, Cassandra Jones, says there are too many chiefs at North Avenue headquarters and not enough in the schools. Of the 200 people who work under her in curriculum and instruction, she wants to deploy 50 to the schools or area offices. "We are too top-heavy in the central office," she told The Sun.

But many are resisting. Some took their complaints to a public hearing last week, and school board members were seen scratching their heads over the latest plan, reportedly imported in part from Philadelphia, Jones' last posting. This is the city with schools so dysfunctional that they're being turned over to universities and for-profit operators.

Jones is rearranging the deck chairs, but not on the Titanic. The system is not a sinking ship, largely because it's had strong leadership and a functional board. But recent successes have had more to do with improved teaching than with the organizational chart du jour.

Cigarette tax pays for a worthwhile goal

While the General Assembly was in session, the only call I got urging me to lobby my delegates and senator came from Philip Morris Cos. A proposed 34-cent-a-pack increase in the state cigarette tax would make Maryland smokers the second-most-taxed in the East (behind New York), said the caller. Please call your legislators and protest, he urged.

Even if I were a chain smoker, I replied, I'd support the increase. Using a sin tax, particularly one on tobacco, to pay for a huge and historic increase in aid to the state's poorest districts is a stroke of genius. Income derived from one of the least beneficial social activities would transfer to education, perhaps society's most valuable and beneficial function.

Thanks to the General Assembly, thanks to the folks who lobbied furiously for the Thornton Commission legislation and thanks to Gov. Parris N. Glendening for signing the law Monday. The effort to achieve a more equitable school financing formula goes back a long way, through numerous commissions and court trials, sweat and tears. Many teachers, parents, civil libertarians, even a few lawyers and judges must be smiling.

This school-related bill was all washed up

The lawmakers sometimes deserve credit for bills they don't pass. A well-meaning example this year, filed by Del. Anne Healey of Prince George's County, would have required soap in all public school lavatories.

It was designed as a public health measure to stop germs spread by hand. But there is no way in the world this law could have been enforced. Half the schools in Maryland would have been guilty. Soapless and toilet-paperless bathrooms are as much a part of public school life as clocks that don't give the right time.

From A to Z, 100 words with which to test yourself

Editors of The American Heritage College Dictionary have compiled a list of 100 words every high school graduate should know to be a success in college or the workplace.

The words, says senior editor Steven Kleinedler, "are not meant to be exhaustive but are a benchmark against which graduates and their parents can measure themselves."

They range from abjure, to renounce under oath, to ziggurat, a temple tower of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians.

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