Stunned Baltimore school system employees met yesterday to learn about coming job cuts, a streamlining outlined in the $1.2 billion budget proposal that schools chief Andres Alonso brought to a standing-room-only meeting of the school board last night.
The proposal cuts $110 million from the central office while redistributing $70 million to schools and giving principals significantly more autonomy.
Principals, who now have about $90 per student in discretionary money, will have at least $5,600 per student to use as they see fit, plus more money with strings attached.
Alonso is to release today an organizational chart showing what the central office will look like. He said more than 400 positions are being eliminated and that 100 are being added under the new structure, leading to a net reduction of 309 jobs.
Many of the displaced employees will be offered jobs in schools as teachers or principals, but the teaching jobs in particular would probably mean pay cuts.
Asked in an interview whether there will be layoffs, particularly for noninstructional employees, Alonso said, "Let's be real: probably." He said he is also expecting a lot of retirements.
Later, at the board meeting, Alonso said publicly, "There are no layoffs." He said the system has enough vacancies every year at schools to allow any displaced central office employee to have a job. He said people willing to work in schools will have jobs. He did not explain why he changed his position.
Alonso presented his plans to union officials yesterday. Later in the day, central office employees were summoned to department meetings to be told about the cuts.
The day was reminiscent of one in November 2003 when system officials announced the layoffs of up to 1,000 employees to deal with a budget emergency. Since then, the central office, commonly called North Avenue, has been rebuilt to its previous size, Alonso said.
Alonso said in an interview that although deep cuts in the central office are necessary again this year to close a budget shortfall, he would have made the changes anyway. Shrinking a bloated bureaucracy, directing more resources to schools and placing principals at the center of responsibility is "simply instrumental in terms of what needs to happen," he said.
As the central office shrinks, Alonso said, its mission will change from supervising schools to supporting schools.
Principals will be given support and then held accountable for results. The school board will vote this spring on accountability gauges that will be used to evaluate principals.
Under the current structure, Alonso said, "responsibility is in essence avoided."
School employees blame students' parents and home lives for the problems, as well as the central office. People at the central office also blame families, as well as a lack of capacity at the school level, he said.
"It doesn't matter who you talk to, it's about something, someone else," Alonso said. "What I do know is that the focus of responsibility needs to be near the kids. If you cannot create that sense of responsibility and efficacy about the work, we're not going to make the system better."
The biggest changes and cuts are expected in the positions reporting to the chief academic officer.
All year, Alonso has been phasing out area academic officer jobs, which are administrative positions overseeing a group of principals. Four of the nine area academic officer positions are occupied after retirements, resignations and promotions of administrators.
Under the new structure, Alonso said, principals will have the opportunity to develop their leadership potential, using discretionary money to craft budgets for their schools. They will have at their disposal an average of $9,100 per student, with no strings attached to about $5,600.
"Leadership is always about discretion," Alonso said. "If a person in a school or a person in a central office is simply doing what he or she is being told to do, there is very little opportunity for leadership."
Alonso said some current principals aren't cut out for the new responsibilities. He would not speculate on how many will be replaced at the end of the school year, but he said mentor principals will be assigned to work with all principals who have performance improvement plans as they develop their school budgets this spring.
From now on, school communities will help interview and recommend candidates to be principals. And the hiring of teachers and other staff members will require principals' approval.
Asked what would happen if no schools wanted some of the displaced central office employees, Alonso said, "If we have somebody who is, let's say, a curriculum specialist or director and nobody wants to hire that person at the school level, we're doing a really good thing in terms of what's going to happen."
Hundreds of people packed system headquarters last night to hear Alonso's budget presentation. Several staff members and students from the Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts spoke at the meeting about how their school doesn't have the money to offer a real arts program. Alonso said the budget restructuring will provide schools with the flexibility to meet specific needs such as buying art supplies.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, one speaker suggested that Alonso is changing things too fast and urged him to take time to contemplate what he is about to do.
"I believe there is no time to waste," Alonso replied as he gave his budget presentation. "I cannot possibly be fast enough."email@example.com brent.jones @baltsun.com