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Editorial
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Incentives for what?

Baltimore City's interim schools chief, Tishsa Edwards, says the $10,000 "retention stipends" being given to seven top system administrators are needed as an incentive to keep the team of her predecessor, Andrés Alonso, intact until June, when a permanent schools CEO is scheduled to be named. But that's a lot of money for staffers who are already quite well paid for their services, and it raises the question of why they should need more to continue doing their jobs. Put another way, what exactly is the public getting for the money it's shelling out to keep a handful of managers at their desks for the next eight months?

Ms. Edwards responds that there's a natural churn among staffers whenever a top administrator moves on and that Baltimore, which is in the midst of a complex school reform effort that involves not only major changes in curriculum, testing and staff evaluations but also a $1.2 billion, 10-year school construction and renovation program as well, has already seen a couple of Mr. Alonso's former top aides jump ship to pursue opportunities elsewhere. She argues that maintaining continuity is so important that it's worth giving the heads of her most important departments additional incentives to stay on the job in order to prevent a brain drain that could cripple the reform effort at a critical moment.

No one wants to see school reform lose momentum while the city searches for another superintendent, of course. But the kind of continuity Ms. Edwards is talking about is precisely what she, as Mr. Alonso's former top deputy, was hired to provide when she took over as interim leader. Moreover, we might add, she was handsomely paid for assuming the burden of that responsibility; she will earn $225,000 for her year at the helm, about $50,000 more than she was paid as Mr. Alonso's deputy.

However, it doesn't necessarily follow that every member of her management team is entitled to a similar pay raise. Ms. Edwards says the incentives are intended to show the school system's "commitment" to those staffers and the work they are doing. We don't dispute the importance of their work, yet the salaries they are already getting — between $131,000 and $175,000 a year — would seem to clearly reflect the seriousness of the city's commitment.

Perhaps the question would be less urgent if handing out "retention stipends" to keep employees on the job was something routinely practiced by other school systems under similar circumstances. But it is not. In Maryland, Baltimore County didn't offer such payments during its search for Superintendent Dallas Dance, nor do school boards in other Baltimore-area districts with interim superintendents, including Anne Arundel and Harford counties, say they plan to offer incentives to retain senior staff. There are even some experts who believe that such incentives are counterproductive as a management tool, at least in the private sector, because they foster a sense of entitlement that actually results in employees becoming less rather than more productive in their jobs.

Ms. Edwards says the incentives she is offering are contingent on their recipients' producing two major reports — one in January, the other in June — in addition to their normal duties. The first would provide a detailed assessment of the ins and outs of their department's operations, while the second would identify staff members within those department who could be groomed for promotion. Under the incentive plan, the aides would receive $5,000 for completing the first project and another $5,000 when the other one was finished. Supporters of the idea say that the reports could be a powerful selling point in the board's search for a new schools chief; city school board Chairwoman Shanaysha Sauls calls them "a management audit for a fraction of the cost."

That's all well and good, but an internal work product like that and an independent review are not the same thing, and furthermore, it's hard to see how such reports would be outside the scope of normal business in the first place. Aren't these administrators already monitoring what potential changes might be needed to streamline operations, for example, or which employees have shown management potential?

Ms. Edwards is a candidate to be Mr. Alonso's permanent replacement, and perhaps she would like to keep these officials around to serve in her administration if she gets the job. But if their commitment to Baltimore's students is so tenuous that they require an extra $10,000 to finish out the school year, she might find they aren't worth retaining at any price.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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