Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Schoolhouse Shuffle ... or Rearranging Deck Chairs . . .

The Utica City School District was back in the news this past week, again reorganizing its administrators and again doing it at Proctor High. (Reorganizing deck chairs on a sinking ship, perhaps?) Mr. Falchi, formerly the principal of the Academy of Business and Finance, will now be principal of ... the Ninth Grade? Can we expect principals of 10th, 11th and 12th grades to be far behind? Is this an admission that the "small schools"/"Millenium" concept hasn't worked at Proctor, which was one of the prototypes (or should we call it an "experiment"?)? We predicted in 2002 there would be problems with the concept. Indeed, other communities have found similar schemes to be failures.

But after spending $37 Million to enshrine the "academies" in architecture, shouldn't the taxpayer at least expect that the original reorganization be given a fair shot before doing something new. Was there a fair trial? The public does not know. Why didn't the "small school" work? The public does not know. All we know is that things are being reorganized again to be more "nuturing" (which sounds like blather from the superintendent to cover up the fact that the school district never really knew what it was doing to begin with).

The Schoolhouse Shuffle is not characteristic of Utica alone. It happens in a lot of other places in one form or another.
New York City recently went through a reorganization to centralize authority (because a lot of its local school boards simply were corrupt and unaccountable, producing dismal results) but now seems to be reorganizing again to devolve authority down to local levels. Two things are constant, however. (1) The process of public education is prone to fads (at least it has been for the last 40 years), and (2) the fads wind up costing the taxpayer lots of money while turning our children into guinea pigs. Does anyone remember the "open classroom" (schools without interior walls) concept? Some districts spent 10s of millions of dollars to implement this back in the late 60s early 70s -- with what should have been predictable results -- only to have to spend millions more now to convert the schools to more traditional structures. Of course, with no walls came constant distration. How many children were labled and medicated for ADD when all they needed was a traditional closed classroom? History is repeating itself with "small schools."

Unfortunately, the public usually does not find out about such changes until they are a fait accompli, so they have no opportunity to think about and weigh in on the issues with their school board representatives. School boards, on the other hand, seldom debate the issues at meetings, with members often feeling more comfortable carrying out their "real" discussions in small sub-groups. This is wrong.

While some school board members may have a private agenda, for the most part they try to do the right thing, usually with only criticism as their reward. However, they too often wind up being "rubber stamps" for what their administrators have decided because (1) school board agendas are primarily set by the Superintendents and (2) school boards are overly dependent upon their administrators for information on what is going on in the schools.

As they used to say, "Knowledge is Power," and this applies to school boards, too. Individual members cannot expect to bring the expertise to the table that full-time school employees can. What they can do, however, is cultivate sources of information that are independent of their administrators. This is where a "give and take" communication with the public is necessary. Instead of a few pairs of eyes around the board table, there may be hundreds or thousands of eyes out there attached to brains holding information that may be key to sound decisionmaking. All a school board needs to do is tap into it.

Today's OD promises better coverage of our schools. We look forward to this. In Utica maybe we'll find out what will be done with Mr. Falchi's old position in the
Academy of Business and Finance, what the space now taken over by the 9th grade formerly was used for, and what the spaces vacated by 9th grade will be used for. Hopefully we'll also find out how the School Board felt about the reorganization, who was in favor, who was against, and what concerns were discussed ... and if things weren't discussed, that would be important to know, too.

Hopefully the new young reporters will have a bit more energy to ferret out what is happening in our schools ... and why ... and not simply accept what they are told by administrators or board members or teachers or students or even state officials. Hopefully they will do some reading on what other communities are doing -- both nationally and internationally, what concerns people elsewhere, and what schools of education are doing -- all to gain and transmit insight on what is happening locally. is a good place to start for national and international stories. City Journal's Education topic is good for insight (from a somewhat conservative perspective.)

The new team at the OD can play a vital role in improving the quality of school board decisionmaking by reporting on both sides of issues before decisions have been made. School boards should furnish the media, and the public through their district websites, all agendas for upcoming board meetings (including all supporting documentation), as far in advance as possible. This will allow others to take a look at how their government is operating, and, perhaps, speak out when things don't look right. Board members should welcome alternative viewpoints, think about them, and debate them with other members if necessary. After the decisions have been made, the Board's minutes should also be posted. We have too often seen decisions made out of the public eye and then stonewalling afterward when someone files a FOIL request.

Increased public discourse on education issues must be encouraged. The more the issues are publicly discussed, the better the decisions hopefully will be. . . . Maybe then we will be able to stop rearranging the deck chairs and enjoy the ride.

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