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More power for principals?

Faced with the prospect of managing the millions it takes to run a school, most principals would opt to duck and run for cover.

Not Tijuana Bigham. The first-year principal at Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg is eager for the Pinellas School District to launch a pilot program that would allow her to make more decisions about curriculum, personnel and finances based on her school's unique needs.

As early as this fall, Bigham might be able to offer staff training targeted to Campbell Park's environmental science theme. She might be able to hire more teachers in one area and fewer in another. Eventually, she might have control over the $3 million in annual state funding earmarked for her school.

"I think it's going to be great," Bigham said. "I see it as school improvement, and that's a positive."

District officials say handing more control over to principals, if executed properly, could revolutionize the way Pinellas schools are run. But if rolled out too quickly, without enough attention to detail, it could backfire.

"Some districts have done this very swiftly and have had to revert back to a strong centralized system because the principals were not prepared," said deputy superintendent Harry Brown. "Ultimately, this will be a seismic shift. But it must start off slowly."

• • •

On Tuesday, the School Board is poised for the first of two readings of a newly drafted policy that would make school-based decisionmaking a reality.

Brown compares the landscape of centralized decisionmaking, the system currently in place in Pinellas in which most curriculum, personnel and financial decisions are made at district headquarters, to the federal government. At the other end of the spectrum, he says, is a confederacy, where the power rests with individuals.

"Decentralized decisionmaking," or "site-based management," lies somewhere in between. While the number of teacher positions at a school would continue to be based on student enrollment, Brown said, decentralized decisionmaking would give schools more flexibility in determining how those teachers are deployed.

Some schools may choose to have fewer administrators and more classroom teachers, for example, while others may choose to use some of their support people in the classroom instead of in the cafeteria or the front office.

"We have a standard template now," Brown said. "We're interested in letting the schools have more say."

And what do district officials hope to gain?

Research shows that achievement improves when decisions are made by those closest to students — their parents, teachers and principals. Research also shows that school staff feel more vested when they have a voice in how their schools are run. And some data suggests that parental involvement increases when parents get to weigh in on matters that directly affect their children.

That all make sense to Paula Nelson, a veteran educator who has been principal at Boca Ciega High School for three years. This year, she struggled with excessive tardiness at her school. With decentralized decisionmaking, she could reconfigure her staff to focus more resources on discipline issues.

"It's not that the district puts up roadblocks, but sometimes there are just lots of layers," Nelson said in describing the current system. "Untying some of the strings on principals will allow us to do what needs to be done."

Lakewood High principal Dennis Duda thinks the change would give him more flexibility in growing his new journalism program. Without having to wait for the district to approve his requests, he could buy materials tailored to his students' needs and provide specialized training for program advisers.

The idea of being in charge of almost $10 million in state funding that Lakewood receives annually doesn't phase him.

"At the end of the day, the principal's name is on the school," Duda said. "If you want me to cook the meal, then you have to allow me to plan the menu and shop for the groceries. I really feel that's what this is all about."

• • •

But there can be pitfalls to transferring so much power — especially financial power — to individuals who normally are trained to be educators rather than CEOs. One-fourth of Okaloosa County's top school administrators left within two years when that district adopted site-based management.

That's why superintendent Julie Janssen is insisting that Pinellas principals receive financial management training. Over the past year, they've met in small groups with business leaders and district finance officers at the Gus Stavros Institute to crunch numbers and pore over spreadsheets.

Brown, the deputy superintendent, says Pinellas is still at the beginning stages of a three-year process. He sees no radical changes coming up in the next year despite the creation of the pilot program for as many as two-dozen schools.

"There still is a lot of education, training and consultation that needs to go on between district folks and the schools to make sure we have a good layer of oversight," he said. "We're trying to educate the principals instead of throwing them in the deep end of the pool."

fast facts

These schools are among those who have expressed a desire to join a pilot program for decentralized decisionmaking:

Sunset Hills, Azalea, Woodlawn, Sanderlin, Shore Acres, Northwest and Westgate elementary schools; Osceola, Lakewood, Tarpon Springs, Boca Ciega and Largo high schools.

More power for principals? 05/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 4:43pm]
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