Chapter Seven: March

02 Mar

Confessions of an Urban Principal/Money to Burn

by Frank Murphy

Installment 1 of 9

The quality of our central office leadership declined when a Chief Executive Officer replaced the position of the Superintendent. Though many of the people who Paul Vallas brought with him are well versed in the ways of the corporate world, they know little about educational practices.

They like to buy products such as computer assisted learning applications, textbooks, and canned instructional programs.  These corporate leaders have demonstrated little faith in the ability of our teachers to do an effective job.  Any program, which directs a teacher on how to instruct in a step-by-step manner using a publisher’s manual, appeals to them.  They also are in favor of outsourcing many of the basic operations of the district.  School support services such as data management, food delivery, maintenance work, student testing, and program evaluations have in short order been turned over to private contractors.  There has been little if any public discussion related to these decisions.

Within the district staff no objections have been raised concerning this aggressive outsourcing of services. Staff members who were not brought in by Vallas are playing it safe.   Many formerly opinionated administrators have seemingly overnight become a yes-person.  Can you really blame them? After all if they were to say “no” to the boss, the school police would most likely escort them out of the district’s headquarters.

Larry is the central office director who is in charge of preparing individual school  staffing and budget allotments.  He does his job well.  Larry is a bright guy who has an uncanny ability to accurately project a school’s future enrollment.  He is one of the Central Office Administrators who has not been replaced by the current administration.

Today I called him. I was disturbed by the budget package that I had been given.  Every fund area had been significantly  reduced.  This is problematic but I am sure that I can figure out a plan to deal with this lost of funds.  What worried me more was the staffing allotment.  The number of teachers that would be assigned to the school for next year had been brutally slashed.   We were slated to lose seven teachers.

The budget packages had been distributed last Tuesday, during a meeting held at the District’s headquarters.   Several officials addressed the various school leadership teams that had gathered there in the auditorium.

The Chief Financial Officer spoke first.  He provided a quick overview of the district’s financial picture.

“This next year’s budget is balanced.  It is a ‘maintenance budget’ as Mr. Vallas likes to describe it.  The year after this, there will be a small shortfall.  This shortfall will grow even larger in the following year.  By 2009, there will be a serious budget hole that we will need to filled.  Of the three hundred million dollars Mr. Vallas convinced the School Reform Commissioner to borrow when he first arrived, only sixty million now remains.”

This rapid spend down of these borrowed funds had been used to pay for the multitude of contracts awarded to vendors and consultants since Mr. Vallas arrival.

Millions have been distributed to testing companies.  Twenty million was paid out to one book publisher that supplied a basal reader series for all of the city schools.  Another firm provided all new math books and supplemental materials for another huge sum of money.

Just the other day there was a newspaper article that stated that the district’s disciplinary schools where going to be managed by private contractors.  These companies had been awarded a total of thirty-six million dollars per year in contracts in order to do so.  One of these vendors is in the business of managing prisons.  When asked why the district should hire commercial firms for this purpose, Mr. Vallas replied that he didn’t think the school district should be in the business of running disciplinary schools.  He felt that a private company could do a much better job.

It is a good time to do business in our school district.  The bottom lines of several companies have been enriched by the lucrative contracts awarded by our district.  Consultants offering all kinds of professional services have benefitted from a cornucopia of economic opportunities created by Vallas’ business friendly management style. Some of these deals have involved vendors who previously worked  with him in Chicago.

Many of our School District’s departments are being dismantled or reorganized as the work they formerly performed is doled out to private contractors. Our new state controlled managers call this a better way of doing business.

Mr. Vallas has had a lot of money to spend since he first arrived.  Many a new friend he has made as he has done so.   Everyone, it seems, loves a man with money to burn.  In life, money doesn’t necessarily buy you love. But in politics it helps you to have your way.

Mr. Vallas is a masterful politician.


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