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Site-based management changes principal's life


Dwayne Johnson is not only responsible for the education of 1,200 Dundalk High School students, but he also must be sure they have enough paper towels and toilet paper.

It's all a matter of budgeting.

It's also part of being a school principal in Baltimore County -- and every other locality that has given principals more authority in recent years. And in Baltimore County -- with schools short on money and principals ordered to freeze 25 percent of their annual budgets -- principals may begin to see the drawbacks of power.

"The job has become more managing than what it was previously," said Mr. Johnson, who has been a principal for nine years and is beginning his third year at Dundalk.

Gone are the days when faraway administrators doled out money and made decisions for individual schools.

Under site-based management -- a hot trend in education -- principals call the shots on budget, staff assignments and other matters.

And sometimes the paperwork keeps Mr. Johnson in his office when he would rather be in the halls and classrooms.

"Instruction . . . is and should be the major piece of the principal's job. But budget has to be one of the top priorities," he said.

Consider what has happened at Dundalk High School.

Last winter, the county school board approved an operating budget of $217,000 to cover the school's instructional program, building and equipment upkeep, clerical supplies, field trips, travel and staff development. Teacher salaries and utilities are paid out of other accounts.

When the fiscal year began in July, the budget was down to $213,000. By the time school started two weeks ago, that had been reduced to $160,000. The $53,000 reduction -- $42 less per student -- resulted from a budget freeze imposed on schools when officials realized they would start the year with a $10 million shortfall.

"It amazes me how much money it takes to run an individual school," Mr. Johnson said.

So, unlike most years, when important budget issues don't roll around until at least October, this school year principals began the school year firmly in the role of budget manager.

At Dundalk, the budget freeze means delaying the purchase of an air conditioner for the faculty and paper used to copy classroom handouts. Mr. Johnson also has reduced each department's allotment by 25 percent, but it will not affect

instruction, textbooks, field trips or other supplies for now, he said.

"I know we have enough of everything to start the year and get through at least three-fourths of the year," he said. "We take care of our curriculum matters upfront.

"Of course, we have to fund the physical plant, such as paper towels, cleaning supplies, toilet paper."

And if some of the frozen assets don't thaw by spring, "I'll have to do some major reorganizing," he said. "But I've learned a long time ago, if you sit and hyperventilate, it's just counterproductive."

Last year, for instance, some unusual staff absences exhausted his budget for substitute teachers and he had to supplement that account from the operating budget, specifically from the office supply account. "I try to reserve a part of that as a cushion," he said.

Mr. Johnson also does not give his department heads all of the money allotted to them. Instead, he gives them "enough so they can operate" and then pools the rest for extraordinary needs or unforeseen expenses.

One year he might buy science textbooks from that "pool." Another year, he would use it in another subject area.

Although Mr. Johnson is emphatic that student instruction is the most important part of his job, he conceded, "If you don't keep some sort of handle on that budget, it will quickly go out of control.

"I have a bookkeeper, who, fortunately, keeps me straight. You are balancing funds -- to department chairmen whose wants generally exceed budget limits, to equipment repairs, to the physical facility. We have limited resources for the job we have to do."

And in the old days -- three years ago -- principals without budget authority had an easy out, Mr. Johnson recalled.

"It was nice to be able to say 'I can't supply that. It's someone else's fault.'

% "Now, it's my fault."

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