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The Central Office (IV): Why Schools Don’t Get Support?

So far this series has explained why two commonly cited reasons to mow down the central office bureaucracy don’t pack much punch.

Bureaucracies are not independent actors aimed at wrecking reform, and employees who have that effect can be let go if district leaders have the will to do so.

The bureaucracy may be seen as a source of funds for teaching and learning. Nevertheless, because central office budget cuts invariably take place in the context of an overall shortfall, classrooms rarely end up with more money at the end of the exercise.

What of the third argument? Surely the central office can be demonized for its lack of responsiveness to schools? Again, let’s not be hasty.

Sluggish Support. In his October 3 speech to the National Press Club on urban school reform, District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty told a classic story of central office bureaucracy. The Mayor visits a school, sees that it is short of essential supplies and materials. He asks why, and is told that the central office rejected the requisition form – and the whole order - because it was a over the limit by a dollar and some change. Fenty concludes this vignette with the obvious point that something is wrong with this outcome and the system that produced it.

No doubt something went wrong. But should the audience have inferred that the problem was the central office bureaucrat or the bureaucracy? Is it really that simple?

The Mayor could just as easily told the story of the central office official who hired her friends to work in the charter school office, or the one about the excessive car benefits for DCPS personnel. Those stories would have concluded with something about his plans for procedures to stop waste, fraud and abuse.

Guess what? Those were the procedures the central office official was following when he or she rejected the purchase order. On balance, district leaders would prefer stopping the purchase order with the dollar forty overage, than to give employees discretion that allows them to defraud the system of hundreds of thousands of dollars. This bureaucrat was doing his or her job.

My own view is that the “proximate cause” of the school’s lack of materials was the principal at the school. He or she did not know the limit, did not check the total cost, or did not check the math. I’d like to think that when the central office staff member got the form, a call was put into the school to solve the problem. What we don’t know is whether this form was sent in two months before the deadline or two day afterwards; the revisions to the form would require the principal to sign again, necessitating the form to be sent to the school or the principal to come down to central; and a whole host of other factors that bear on responsibility for the result. But we do know that the problem started at the school, not the central office.

School system support structures are slow for three reasons. First, as noted above, school district leaders have not sought a bureaucracy with vast discretion, they want bureacrats to make sure there is no waste, fraud or abuse. As a result, “support” structures emphasize restraint over speed.

Second, because the leadership has decided not to invest, central office support structures have not benefited from thirty years of corporate experience with information systems. Many processes are not automated, there are few databases, and there is little linkage across departments.

Finally, patronage has been at least as important to the hiring of central office staff and managers as professionalism. If professionalism isn't valued, it's no surprise that training in key areas like purchasing is sub par. This history is why so many superintendents and mayors are now trying hard to hire managers away from business.

We came back to a common theme. The bureaucracy doesn’t set policy or promulgate procedures. The bureaucracy works with the support system the political leadership provides. The bureaucracy follows policies and procedures set by school district leaders – the school board, the city council, the mayor, the superintendent. If those policies are not meeting the needs of schools, we don’t want the bureaucracy to make up new ones or devise clever work-arounds. We want the districts leaders to make the development of appropriate policies and procedures a priority.

Bottom Line: The process of school support isn’t working in many school districts. The fault lies not with the central office, but with the district leadership that approved the sluggish process.

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