In Hartford Public Schools, power and money are being pushed out to individual schools rather than being kept in the central administration, but there have already been some unintended consequences
By Daniel D'Ambrosio
May 08, 2008
Hours before Mayor Eddie Perez's budget received a public airing last week at Hartford's Bulkeley High School, about two dozen members of the union representing school custodians, electricians, food service workers and other support staff circled the wide sidewalk out front, loudly protesting with signs and a bullhorn.
Passing cars periodically honked their horns in solidarity, and union members gave enthusiastic cheers in response. Wearing matching green T-shirts with the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) logo on the back, the workers repeated their question-and-answer mantra over and over — "What do we want? Respect!"
The demonstration grew out of what union members see as a break from past practices when layoffs were on tap in the school system, as they are this year. In the past, says AFCSME Local 566 President Mark Blumenthal, the union's executive board would be presented by the school administration with a list of names of union members who would be losing their jobs.
After the union verified the people on the list were the least senior employees in their respective schools, the targeted employees would be able to exercise their "bumping privileges." If there were less senior employees doing the same jobs they were doing at other schools, those guys would be out of work — "bumped" — instead of them.
This year, said Blumenthal, principals at each school have been given full autonomy, the power to decide who will be eliminated and who will stay. He said at least 10 employees have already been told they likely won't have a job come July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
"They have the right to eliminate a position, but not a person," Blumenthal said. "Seniority counts for something. We are humans. We have dignity. We may not be the most learned people, but we have feelings. We shouldn't be sat down in a chair on a loading dock and told we are out of work."
Mayor Perez, who also chairs the Board of Education, acknowledged the process for layoffs was different this year, but he said that "all union rights will be protected." Bumping privileges will be preserved. Most of the cuts — amounting to some 59 jobs — will actually come out of the central administration, not the schools, according to Perez. That's because the board and Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski have a plan to shift money away from the Central Office and into the schools, which is part of a bigger plan to put more decision-making power at the school level.
"Those folks essentially on the front lines every day really know what's best for their schools," said Nancy Benben, interim chief communications officer for Hartford Public Schools. "Our strategy is to give people running the schools a greater say in what's happening."
In this year's budget, 66 percent of the money will go directly to schools with the remaining 34 percent staying in the Central Office, a reduction of 14 percent over last year, according to Benben. The shift in funding will continue over the next several years.
"We have a process to move from 48 percent of the money being spent in the classroom to trying to get it over a three-year period to 70 percent," said Perez. "It's the goal of the board to spend more money in the classroom. In order to do that we have to reduce the central administration."
Why the shift in the way the $284.5 million school budget is allocated? Simple. To make the schools better. The performance of Hartford Public Schools has long been near the bottom not only in the state, but also in the nation. One sobering statistic in particular illustrates the plight of Hartford's schools: of the total number of students entering the 9th grade in the city, only 30 percent graduate with a high school degree four years later — a graduation rate Perez terms "not acceptable."
"We have to change what we're doing," he said.
As part of the change in strategy on the budget, which is based on ideas advanced by The Broad Education Foundation in Los Angeles, principals will be held more directly accountable for the performance of their students. Eli Broad, a mega-successful businessman who founded two Fortune 500 companies before turning his philanthropic eye toward education, wants to see schools take a more entrepreneurial approach.
There will still be a role for the central administration to play in Hartford's public schools, but it will be a kinder, gentler role. Rather than dictating to schools what they should be doing, administrators will focus on helping them with their problems.
"One of the goals for the central office is to be much more service oriented," said Benben.
It's important to note, however, that the degree of autonomy a school is given will be directly related to how successful the school is. On that score, the Classical Magnet School on Woodland Avenue across from St. Francis Hospital is nearly fully autonomous — a perfect example of the level of excellence the board and Adamowski want to see for all Hartford schools, according to Benben.
"[Principal Tim Sullivan] has a very rigorous college-oriented curriculum," said Benben. "He is a strong leader who involves parents, students and staff to decide 'How do we want to spend this budget next year?'"
Benben said Sullivan's goal for Classical Magnet School is to have all his students go to four-year colleges, and he's close to that goal, with nearly 80 percent of his students moving on to college.
This week, the Board of Education released detailed line item budgets for each of the schools, which likely will quell last week's uproar over the lack of transparency in the school budget, even if it doesn't lessen the pain of cuts.
The initial release of the budget assigned gross numbers to each of the schools, making it impossible to figure out exactly where the cuts were coming from, according to Tom Connolly, a social worker who works for Hartford Public Schools, and who spoke out at last week's budget meeting.
"[Adamowski] promised a transparent budget that was supposed to be parent-friendly," Connolly told the Advocate. "What it ended up being is anything but a transparent budget. It was a confusing budget."
Connolly said he doesn't necessarily have a problem with the plan to shift more control to the school level, but that there should be a slower, more careful, transition.
"I think [Adamowski] needs to talk to PTO [Parent Teacher Organization] presidents to make sure they have a full understanding of what's going on in their schools," said Connolly.
But Perez points out that a public hearing on the school budget earlier this year drew only three people.
For Blumenthal, no matter what happens over the coming months, this year's experience has already changed what he says was a longstanding relationship between his union members — whom he calls the "bloodstream" of Hartford Public Schools — and the Central Office.
"We were always like a family, whether you were an administrator, a custodian, or even a superintendent," said Blumenthal. "We treated each other like family."