Alonso's new administrators

Our view: City schools CEO's plan to hire 16 additional highly paid central office staffers may be justified, but he needs to do a better job explaining it to the public

May 13, 2011

Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso says he's not concerned about the "optics" of hiring 16 new highly paid headquarters staff at a time when school budgets are shrinking and the system is shedding hundreds of "excess" teachers and other personnel through buyouts.

But given that Mr. Alonso came into office promising to cut the system's bloated central office in order to free up resources for individual schools, he should be worried by how this looks. He may have the best reasons in the world for wanting to reorganize his department this way, but he'd better be willing to explain to the public why he's not going back on his word. He has a case to make, but given that the move appears counter to his longstanding efforts to move authority — and money — from the central office to the schools, he needs to take the time to make it.

When Mr. Alonso first came to town, his mantra for reforming the schools was simple: Hire great principals, give them the resources and autonomy they need to get the job done, then hold them accountable for the results. To a great extent, it was a successful strategy, especially in terms of transferring resources from the central office to individual schools. But it also placed enormous new responsibilities on principals as managers and instructional leaders.

The purpose of the 15 new executive director positions Mr. Alonso wants to create would be to help hone principals' management skills and keep them abreast of the latest instructional developments, such as the soon-to-be adopted core curriculum Maryland and other states are developing to raise academic standards. The new executive directors would also be responsible for evaluating how well principals are doing their jobs and helping them improve their performance.

Currently, there are only a couple of executive directors at headquarters, and they are responsible for overseeing and evaluating 200 elementary, middle and high school principles. Mr. Alonso says that's too many principals for two people to keep track of, and he wants to hire the additional staffers so that each executive director can focus much more closely on just a dozen or so schools.

Because the executive directors have to be experienced administrators, preferably ones who have served as principals themselves, they don't come cheap. The posts being advertised carry a salary of $125,000 a year. In addition, Mr. Alonso wants to hire a deputy CEO who can run the whole system on a day-to-day basis; that job pays $175,000 a year.

Yet he insists he can add these new positions and still eliminate 89 currently filled jobs in the central office that will save $3.6 million next year. In any case, the salaries of the executive director slots will be paid for using federal funds that are earmarked for professional development. By law, such funds can't be used for other purposes, such as hiring more teachers or funding after-school programs. There was never any possibility the $1.75 million it will cost to fund the 15 executive director positions could have gone directly to the classroom instead.

Mr. Alonso's whole reform effort hinges on two overarching concepts: A great principal for every school and a great teacher in every classroom. In this scheme, principals are the linchpin of successful reform because, among other important tasks, it's up to them to support their classroom teachers, monitor their progress and evaluate how well they're doing their jobs. Mr. Alonso wants to give principals the same kind of focused support — and critical evaluations — that will help them do their jobs better as well.

Assigning more executive directors to perform that function may be entirely reasonable given the already substantial reductions in central office staff expected next year. But Mr. Alonso, who is accustomed to pushing his changes through as quickly as possible, hasn't always stopped to consider how the public views his actions.

A prime example of such an indifference to "optics" was his failed attempt in 2009 to appoint former school board president Brian Morris to an unadvertised job as his top deputy (the very same deputy CEO post he's now trying to resurrect). At the time, Mr. Alonso seemed genuinely surprised that anyone might question the ethics of his awarding a plum job to his former boss. But one might have thought he would have learned from that episode that he needed to do a better job of explaining his plan to the public this time. The city has given him tremendous leeway to remake the school system as he sees fit. He cannot take that for granted.

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