Schools chief races ahead with initiatives

The Baltimore Sun

At a recent City Council hearing, Andres Alonso quoted the racecar driver Mario Andretti in describing his approach toward reforming the Baltimore schools: "If you're driving and you feel you're in control, you're not going fast enough."

Over the past week, the schools chief executive officer has shown just how fast he can drive.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, he pushed through initiatives creating five schools and requiring members of the staff at three others to reapply for their jobs. He proposed school closures and reconfigurations. And he unveiled a spending blueprint that not only closes a $50 million shortfall but also restructures the system, slashing the central office, empowering principals and directing tens of millions more dollars to schools.

Now comes the monumental work: hashing out all the details of the restructuring and putting it in place by August.

Alonso will have to keep up the pace - and get the school board, staff and community to keep up with him. After the events of the past week, he said, "the precedent has been set that we can move very, very fast."

A handful of the nation's urban school systems, including New York City's, have been moving toward a decentralized management similar to Alonso's plan. But Karen Hawley Miles, head of a Boston-based consulting firm that helps districts design and implement the changes, hasn't seen anyone moving at the speed of Baltimore's CEO.

"It's an approach based on a conviction that he's got this moment in time to make some dramatic changes, and the system right now doesn't have all that much worth preserving," said Miles, executive director of Education Resource Strategies.

From the time he came to Baltimore from New York in July, Alonso has said that if change doesn't happen right away, the forces of inertia will return city schools to the way they've always been. But now that the change is happening, a lot of people are uncomfortable.

At schools, the decentralization is worrying librarians, art teachers, guidance counselors and others whose jobs will be subject to the discretion of principals. Alonso said principals are likely to fund more of these positions; still, the uncertainty is unnerving.

Some principals are overwhelmed by their new responsibilities. Tensions also are running high at the central office, where hundreds of workers must reapply for jobs, and many face a pay cut and a transfer to a school.

Alonso is going to great lengths to promote and explain his plans, meeting with politicians, parents and students. On Wednesday, he called himself the "media man," sitting for interviews with 10 television and radio stations, starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m. - a short day for the bachelor and self-described workaholic. He also presented his plan to about 150 parents and educators at Frederick Douglass High School yesterday morning.

In the end, though, what matters to Alonso is maintaining a majority of support on the nine-member school board.

The board has been divided on many of his initiatives but has not stopped anything. Given the magnitude of the change under way, Alonso said it's unrealistic for the board to be unanimous on every vote. "The board is remarkably open," he said, "more open than any board I've ever seen to the possibility of change."

Tuesday's board meeting was among the most action-packed in years.

The board had not planned to vote that night on contracts for outside operators to open five middle/high schools, and the contracts were not listed on the public agenda. But Alonso made the case that if the system had found great operators, why wait?

Putting middle and high school students under the same roof hasn't been done successfully on a large scale anywhere. Alonso believes that it's right for Baltimore because of the city's high number of overage middle school students, those who were held back repeatedly during their elementary years and who often drop out by high school. If they are in school with students their own age, Alonso's thinking goes, they will feel less socially awkward. He also believes teachers will take more responsibility for what happens to them.

Last fall, Alonso asked philanthropists to back the creation of two dozen such schools over the next few years, operating with autonomy and under partnerships with outside organizations.

Then, with no money pledged, he sought proposals from school operators. Despite the budget shortfall, he vowed to find funding for the new schools regardless of whether any donations came through. (Ultimately, they did.)

Riskier than the middle/high school initiative is decentralization, which will affect all 81,000 students in the city and all 12,000 system employees.

When New York City began its decentralization experiment in 2004, it started with 26 schools. Las Vegas started with four. In Baltimore, Alonso is decentralizing all 192 schools at once.

Miles, the consultant working with Alonso, said districts with steeply declining enrollment can have trouble with decentralized management because schools are funded according to the number of students they have, and a small enrollment drop can destabilize a school's budget. Alonso sees that as all the more reason to improve the schools so parents won't send their children elsewhere.

The school system now spends the equivalent of about $13,000 per student, and the central office dictates how all but $90 of that is spent. Under the structure Alonso proposes, principals would have up to $5,600 per student at their discretion - an increase of more than $1.5 million in spending flexibility for an elementary school with 300 students.

The discretionary dollars could have been greater, but principals resisted getting so much added responsibility at once. For example, Alonso wanted them to oversee their schools' cafeterias, which are now run centrally, but they didn't want the hassle.

"For the life of me, I don't get that," Alonso said at a principals' meeting Thursday.

Alonso gave the principals an aggressive timeline over the next few months: undergo training, gather community input and, by May 15, submit proposed school budgets. He's made it clear that anyone not up to the job won't continue as a principal.

The people who run after-school and other programs also have a busy spring in store. Because most programs will be funded by principals instead of the central office, operators who have had a reliable funding source must sell themselves to principals.

Pam Spiliadis, executive director of the Baltimore Urban Debate League, said her program will have a chance to expand under the new structure. But for the next few months, she doesn't anticipate getting much sleep as she meets with principals at the 66 middle and high schools where the debate league operates.

"It's going to be definitely a time of major transition for us," Spiliadis said. "Long run, I think this is great. Short run, I've got a lot of work to do."

Carl Stokes, a former city school board member who runs a charter school, said it's sensible for Alonso to make his biggest moves during his first year as CEO.

"The influence diminishes the longer you're here," said Stokes, who also served on the City Council. "I think he has to move while he has his greatest strength."

Still, as fast as Alonso is moving, he's not tackling everything yet.

He wants principals to oversee cafeterias, but he let them off the hook this year. He wants them to have more control over special education, but he must wait for further progress in a decades-old federal lawsuit.

He wants the central office even smaller than it will be with 310 positions cut, from 1,531 to 1,221. Because the system is expecting another budget shortfall next year, he had to leave some jobs that can go in the second round.

He wants all schools funded fairly, but, again, to ward off resistance, he's proposing to at least partially hold harmless schools that in the past have gotten more money than others with similar student populations.

Despite Alonso's desire for speed, he said he knows there are limits, politically and logistically, to what he can do in the first year. To accomplish everything on his list, he estimates that he needs a decade.

Busy meeting

Schools CEO Andres Alonso put a lot on the school board's plate Tuesday:

Unveiling a budget proposal that reorganizes the entire system.

Approving the creation of five middle/high schools.

Requiring members of the staff at three struggling schools to reapply for their jobs.

Presenting plans for school closures and reorganizations.

Hiring a new academic achievement officer.

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