Annals of school reform: Has the central office been cut to the bone? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Annals of school reform: Has the central office been cut to the bone? 

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On Sunday, November 17, the school board and teachers' union agreed to a deal that averted a strike and kept 409,000 children in school. Everyone should have been happy, and yet the pictures on the front pages of Monday's newspapers showed only somber faces.

Many were gloomy because the 11th-hour deal brokered by Mayor Daley promises pay hikes for which there is no money.

Even gloomier were some school reformers who had hoped school officials would use the strike threat as an opportunity to cut central-office expenses. Instead, the strike threat came and went, and the central-office waste remained--or so many activists contend.

"In many ways, nothing's changed," says Coretta McFerren, a south-side school activist and director of a parent-training group called Taking Responsibility for Improving Public Schools. "We're still trying to scrape together enough money to buy toilet paper, while the bureaucrats give themselves raises."

School superintendent Ted Kimbrough contends that such accusations are off target since the "central-office staff is cut to the bone." But very few activists believe him. The consequence is a barrage of charges and countercharges that will undoubtedly hurt Chicago's efforts to receive additional funding from the state.

"They're not cut to the bone, and they've never been cut to the bone," says McFerren. "And the more they spread that word, the harder it is to believe anything they say. The cuts have been made on the local level, where they are felt by teachers and the kids. And I for one will fight against any more state aid until that central office is cut."

Central-office officials counter that some activists have ulterior motives for attacking the board. "We respect the mission and purpose of many watchdog groups, but we have to wonder where they get their information," says Linda Matsumoto, a spokeswoman for the central office. "Their actions are not always as altruistic as they may assert. They may reflect hidden political agendas."

Teachers and activists have long complained about central-office workers. For one thing, there are so many of them--at least 10,000, housed in the gargantuan facility that stretches for three blocks on West Pershing Road.

What all these people do has never been clear. One can understand why some functions--such as payroll--are assumed by the central office. But why should the system employ, say, curriculum coordinators, most of whom haven't taught in years?

Many veteran teachers consider the bureaucrats the bane of the system. "If you take a leave or want to get college credits added to your record, you have to go to them--they never come to you," says one longtime grade-school teacher. "Half the time they have someone at an inflated salary doing some minor record keeping that should be done by a clerk."

Despite the school-reform law of 1988--which was supposed to put each school under the control of a locally elected council of parents, teachers, and area residents--most budget and curriculum decisions still have to be approved by the central office. And for every decision there is a bureaucrat, feverishly guarding his or her turf.

"The strange thing is that the further you get from the classroom the more money you make, the more clout you get," says the grade-school teacher. "The system encourages people to leave the classroom and take nonessential jobs."

This was all supposed to change two years ago, when Kimbrough came to town from California accompanied by gushing praise from school reformers. At Kimbrough's glitzy 1990 coronation, activists and business leaders predicted that he would trim the central office and divert more money to the classrooms.

Now almost all reformers contend he has failed. "We are dealing with the culture of entrenched bureaucracy," says Diana Lauber, a budget analyst for Leadership for Quality Education, a not-for-profit consortium of corporate big shots. "They see their job as keeping their jobs."

According to budget reports by LQE, Kimbrough made up for central-office personnel cuts in this year's budget by raising the salaries of about 50 central-office staffers and by spending more money on overtime (up from $5.4 million in 1991 to $10 million in 1992) and outside consultants (up from $4.8 million to $6 million in the same period).

LQE also accuses Kimbrough of continuing unnecessary expenditures, such as an annual $500,000 subsidy to run the cafeteria in the Pershing Road facility (even though the cafeteria business could be awarded to the highest bidder) and a $600,000 in-house medical unit (even though nurses have been cut at the schools). "The system has a good insurance plan," says Lauber. "There's no need for employees to have in-house physicians and a psychiatrist."

Even less excusable, activists contend, were recent revelations that the board spent thousands of dollars on fountain-pen ink, dinners in expensive restaurants, and air fare for ten employees who flew to Atlanta to hear Kimbrough deliver a speech. "Flying to Atlanta doesn't have anything to do with education," says McFerren. "And no one in the central office should be getting pay raises--at least not at a time when the local schools don't have enough money for pencils."

LQE also questions whether the board has actually made cuts in the central office that it says it has. According to the board's budget, 28 jobs were cut from the Department of Research and Evaluation, for a savings of about $1.1 million. Unmentioned, however, was the fact that the board increased the department's professional-services account by $1.3 million--enabling it to hire at least ten outside consultants. "They fire employees, and then they hire consultants," says Lauber. "It's an old game, and trying to track down all the maneuvering is like hitting your head against the wall. The board never admits to anything. We send them our press releases and reports, but it's as though we don't exist. They only comment about us through the press.

"A few months ago the board's people were going around Springfield claiming that they had cut 404 central-office positions. But we found out they had only really cut 299. So they'd be going around to all the legislators saying, 'We cut 404.' And I'd be following them saying, 'No, you didn't. No you didn't.' It's almost childish."

Kimbrough and his allies contend that these kinds of miscalculations are unintentional. "It is a documented fact that we have lost over 2,000 central-office administrative positions during the last three years," says Linda Matsumoto. "There has been a significant increase in employees at the local site, which is in accordance with the school-reform act, which mandates that governance be from the bottom up."

The pay raises and increases in consultant fees, Matsumoto explains, are necessary to compensate for other cuts. "Yes, it's true that we do hire a lot of consultants. But they're needed to fill the big gap that was created by these cuts.

"In terms of the salary adjustments, these are not really pay raises. What happens is that you have a dedicated core of administrators who, because they lost in some cases five people from their staffs, had to pick up the slack. So their jobs changed, and they had more responsibilities. That's why their salaries increased."

To some degree the debate over central-office employment has split the reform community. Some activists refuse to join the chorus of central-office critics. They maintain that such criticism only gives state legislators and Governor Edgar more excuses not to increase funds for the schools.

McFerren, however, takes the potentially kamikaze position that the state should not award the schools any additional funds unless the central office is cut. "The only way I will support new dollars for the system is if it comes along with an absolute ironclad guarantee that not one dime will go to the central office. People say, 'Oh, but you're only hurting the children.' Well, I don't see how it could get worse. It seems to me they're getting awfully hurt the way it is."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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