More on school-based management
On Saturday, we reported that local business leaders have proposed a bold new plan for Pinellas schools that would divert decision making from district administration and place it – along with the money to run the schools – in the hands of principals, teachers and parents.
The model of "school-based management" has precedent in the Okaloosa County School District, where it was rolled out several years ago under the leadership of then superintendent Sen. Don Gaetz.
Gaetz, who currently chairs the Senate education committee, spoke with us at length about the plan. Read on to see what he had to say.
- Donna Winchester, Pinellas education reporter
Can you tell me more about how school-based decision making works in Okaloosa County?
Each school creates a school performance plan. It looks like a classic business plan. It says, "Here's our performance today. Here's the performance we intend to achieve by the end of the year." In the left-hand column of the plan is the academic profile of the school based on FCAT results and other academic measurements. Next, the School Advisory Council and the principal determine what they believe their academic profile can be if they stretch. In other words, if there's a soft spot in fourth-grade writing, what can be one at the school level to improve it?
Then, central administration says, "Here is 90 percent of the money earned with the funding formula by the students in your school. You, members of the School Advisory Council, you work with the principal to develop your budget to deploy your resources. Decide on your staffing in order to reach the academic objectives that you have set for yourselves. Decide if you want an art teacher instead of another PE teacher. If you want to drop the assistant principal and pick up an extra music teacher. What instructional methods will you use and what will you have to purchase? What different strategies will you have to employ?"
The plan is not any longer than four or five pages, but every student in the school is addressed in it. It's a published school performance plan. It's not like the big school improvement plans that get developed and become coffee coasters.
At what point would central administration – the superintendent and the School Board – get involved?
Once the School Advisory Council and the principal develop the plan, they bring it to the chief financial officer, not for approval, but to make sure their math is right. They bring it to the chief academic officer to make sure they aren't employing academic strategies that are just educational fads. The chief academic officer consults with them to make sure they are using a research based, fact-driven strategy. Then the plan goes to the superintendent, who assembles the plans from all the schools and takes that to the School Board. That document becomes the proposed budget for the next year.
So you created a system where virtually all decision making is in the hands of the principals and the School Advisory Councils?
Yes. We were saying, "This is your school. You have control of the resources. We're not going to tell you which teachers to hire. We're not going to tell you what positions you have to fill. You can decide is you want to have an assistant principal. You can decide how many PE teachers you want to have. You can decide if you want a music teacher at your school or if you want to contract with a local symphony. You make all those decisions."
In return for that substantial delegation of resources, the principal bet his or her job on the plan. All school based administrators were placed on a one-year contract. Their contract renewal at the end of the year was not completely, but largely, based on performance against the plan.
Did all principals get on board with this?
I had one principal who said, "I can't get my kids on grade level. More than 60 percent of them are on free or reduced-price lunch. I have all these African-American kids." I fired her and got somebody else.
And were there growing pains when you made the change?
We started with some half-baked plans, but we ended up with some exceptional ones. it wasn't due to some kind of silver bullet shot by the district office. It wasn't due to some magical answer the department of education crafted in Tallahassee, or that some traveling road show brought to our county. It wasn't something that we learned by going to some convention and hearing an expert. Our parents and our teachers and our principals, with control of their own resources, with access to the best research we could provide, dug deep inside themselves and created performance plans, and their performance plans created excellent results.
It's just a different way. public education isn't structured that way. Public education is the last nonmilitary command and control structure in American society. It's the last place where initiative is discounted, local innovation is punished, and consistency is exalted under the guise of equity.
Isn't this type of school based management a little risky?
I guess you could say what we did was very risky. What we did was put responsibility in the hands of people who up until then had been treated like they were cogs in a machine.
Those who lived through it, the ones who had been involved in a more conventional approach, can tell you how different it was. It was at least a 140-degree change from the way we'd done business in the past. But the answers are not at the district office. They are not at the conference we're gong to spend $50,000 to send people to. The answers are not in Tallahassee. The answers are in the schools.