EAI Head Speaks: School Critics Must Be 'Blind, Deaf and Dumb'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore has been at the center of a national debate about private management of public schools since 1992, when it contracted with Education Alternatives Inc. to operate nine schools.

Mayor Kurt L Schmoke, who faces a re-election challenge from City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, is expected to renegotiate EAI's contract this summer. If the company doesn't show better student test scores, Mr. Schmoke says, he might cut the five-year deal short.

John T. Golle, the 51-year-old entrepreneur who founded EAI in 1986, has been the main salesman for the concept that private enterprise can more efficiently manage city schools, better educate students and still show a profit.

Following are excepts of a interview by The Baltimore Sun's James Bock and Mike Bowler with Mr. Golle at Harlem Park Community School, which is managed by EAI.

Q: Given the political climate in Baltimore, are you afraid the mayor will pull the plug on the EAI contract?

A: No way, no way, no way, no way. The have-nots all of a sudden have something that the haves don't have. Good, clean, safe schools loaded with technology. Just try to take it away from the have-nots, just try. I dare you, you just try.

Q: What has been your relationship with Superintendent Walter G. Amprey?

A: Walter and I have become very good friends, and I don't think that's bad. If you look at how other people do business in the world, like the Japanese, you must first become their friend and then and only then will they do business with you. I'd suggest to you that there's a higher order of obligation when someone says, You are my friend," and the person says back to you, "And you are my friend." There is nothing that I wouldn't do as long as it's morally acceptable and legally OK to make this program work and to have Walter Amprey get the credit that he rightfully deserves.

Look for another urban district like Baltimore that is going up, the test scores are going up, the morale is going up. You might be able to find one, but I don't know of one.

We've been under attack. I think it has probably caused us to come together and be closer as allies than perhaps if everyone had left us alone.

Q: How did you come up with the original nine Tesseract schools in 1992?

A: We read about them in The Baltimore Sun. We had no prior knowledge of them. . . . What we asked for we didn't get. We asked for a good balance of schools. We said, don't give us all of your down-and-out schools. . . . The district decided to award us a middle school under the belief that it's so bad, it can't get worse. [Harlem Park Middle School] was a war zone. So to anyone that says we've not made progress, it's only because they haven't been here before, they're blind, deaf and dumb or something. A lot of things are wrong, but we've made significant progress.

Q: Did you discuss whose curriculum was going to be taught in these schools?

A: We had not done a detailed curriculum analysis prior to accepting these schools, and it's one of those things you learn in business where you don't assume anything. Although they had a good curriculum, we have subsequently found it's implemented erratically. It varies substantially from class to class, school to school.

Q: So you came in, it wasn't your curriculum, it wasn't your principals, it wasn't your staff and yet all of us have been saying that you're running these schools.

A: What we've said all along is that we have a partnership with them. . . . We'll call it sticking to your core competencies. Look at the superintendents, principals and teachers, and ask yourself what training, what background, what experience did they have in running a $630 million business loaded with financial intricacies? It's like running a small city. You do everything. You feed people, you nurse them when they're ill, you pick up the trash, you turn on the lights, you're one of the largest single employers in town. This is big-time business and, with all due respect, people have degrees in education.

They're supposed to be providing competent personnel who will take a reasonable amount of direction and share in the mission which is this honest-to-God belief that every child has gifts and talents and it's our responsibility to find and nurture them. Now we believe that right down to our toes. Now we have some people in here that do not believe that, and we have to purge the system of those people. It has nothing to do with EAI. It has to do with the fact that to protect one adult, we ruin hundreds of kids, and we as a society can't do that anymore. Plain and simple.

Q: Do you have plans to weed out people?

A: We have the existing right to request transfers. Heretofore we have not requested any teachers to be reassigned, but you will see us do that.

Q: Why wasn't there a provision for outside evaluation or performance standards in the contract?

A: It's a source of frustration for us when some critics say there's no criteria by which success is going to be judged. That's not true, it never has been true. We do detailed reports at the end of every year, we give them to the school board, they're about 4 inches thick. It measures quantifiably as well as qualitatively virtually everything that we've done here.

Q: Didn't you work up some high expectations such as by making statements that you guaranteed world-class schools?

A: If there was any misunderstanding in that regard, I think I've apologized a thousand times, so a thousand and one might be in order. But we have made substantial and significant progress. We have redone the physical plants. We're proud that they're inviting, safe, clean environments. They have state-of-the-art technology. Teachers receive two hours of staff development every single week. They have more textbooks, they have more supplies, they have better furniture. We've completely redone the food service program. We've instituted parent training. . . . We are very proud of what we've done.

We know student performance will continue to go up with those that we have some period of time with. Unfortunately, we can't be held responsible for kids that are in and out of the school in three or four months. No one should be held responsible for that.

Q: You say you've increased spending on instruction. The school system's evaluation said EAI spent less. Where's the fallacy in their report if there is one?

A: I'll simply say in that regard, without pointing fingers, how they were counting their numbers and how we found them to be . . . once we loaded up our computer were substantially different. . . . I'll stand by my numbers any day of the week.

Q: People accuse you of making a lot of money running inner-city schools.

A: Well, this is a touchy subject because I came out of a private company where I made a lot of money. . . . For 2 1/2 years at EAI I drew a salary of zero. I started this and it's a mission. I have a learning-disabled son. I kept him in public schools and it was a huge mistake. So I got into this business, and pretty soon I had $3 million in it.

The fourth year I started drawing a salary of $100,000. In most people's world $100,000 is just a whole lot of money. I've been very successful at what I've done over the years, and in relative terms it was a significant, significant reduction.

Q: How can EAI make a profit running Baltimore schools?

A: It comes from better managing the dollars that are there, and there is no one way.

All these lights have been redone. We've burned 25 percent less electricity than other schools. That amounts to almost $200,000 a year, every year, forever. We cleaned up all the boilers at Malcolm X [Elementary School]. Twenty-seven out of 28 air exchangers didn't work so it had a big hot spot under the floor.

Meanwhile the kids down at the end would be sent home because it was so cold and, of course, over the hot spot they opened up the window to cool it off.

I think we spent maybe a thousand bucks. The last preventive maintenance tag we found on it was 1976. Just total infrastructure disrepair.

So that first year we plowed in a couple million dollars to do things that you can't even see. They're behind the doors, they're in the ceilings, but it saves dollars and it provides a safe, clean, secured environment. That's why we do it.

What if all of a sudden the teachers find out, by God, if you turn the lights off or if you report things that are broken you'll save money, you get to buy a microscope?

You've wanted a microscope for a long time, and everyone starts to buy into it.

People always say, How can we save money? And there is no one big pot you go to, but just look at what you buy through this school. It's everywhere you look.

There are opportunities to save money and if the staff knows those savings enrich their lives, secure the building, buy more textbooks, bring in more technology, they become partners with you, and that's when it all works.

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