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John Covington Gets It Done

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A few weeks back, I wrote about Kansas City superintendent John Covington. Having inherited a district plagued by a $50 million budget shortfall, half-filled schools, and lousy performance, Covington rejected the familiar "muddle through" strategy and proposed radical surgery. He urged the board to shut-down half the district's 61 schools and cut a quarter of the staff. Last week, in a 5-4 vote, the board backed his proposal to shutter close to 30 schools, sell the district's downtown central office, eliminate 700 out of 3000 positions, and require teachers at six low-performing schools to reapply for their jobs. For more details, see here and here.

All this is unfolding in a district that has lost 75 percent of its students in the past four decades, with enrollment shrinking from 75,000 to 17,500. Covington took over last summer. After long years of superintendents who were happy to preside over steady decline and keep open half-empty buildings, Covington finally said "enough." More importantly, he put together a smart and saleable strategy to execute it. Reports are that he assiduously worked the community and sought buy-in where possible, but made the bottom line clear.

Covington had the smarts and courage to take the shockingly rare step of doing this first, fast, and cleanly, while he was still on his honeymoon and could easily make the case he was just cleaning up an inherited mess. This will free up crucial dollars, eliminate distractions, and put himself in a position to focus on teaching, learning, and school improvement. I only wish more superintendents and principals who yearn to be "instructional leaders" recognized how this kind of aggressive response to "business" challenges can help set them up for instructional success.

While most districts are not Kansas City, Covington's plight isn't as unique as one might imagine. Districts across the land are gearing up to face the dreaded funding "cliff," a situation aggravated by the end of federal stimulus aid. A recent report from the nonpartisan Rockefeller Institute of Government shows that state revenues are continuing to decline--in the last quarter of 2009 revenues dropped by 4.1 percent--and another Rockefeller study predicts a total of $73.9 billion in budget gaps for fiscal year 2011. And the accelerating downturn in commercial real estate and the soft housing market mean that districts will likely be looking at tight budgets into 2014 and beyond. And, look, districts have been growing staff and spending at a pace that outstrips student enrollment (or achievement gains) for decades; the reality is that the piper was going to come calling eventually.

Thus far, districts have dealt with collapsing revenues and the possibility of a new fiscal reality mostly by postponing building maintenance, adjusting thermostats, and cutting bus routes. Now, more are starting to ham-handedly increase class sizes, reduce the use of instructional materials, and do away with electives. While I'm all in favor of strategically increasing class size (for particular students, grades, and subjects), those cuts will only take districts so far. And the last thing superintendents need is unhelpful encouragement from would-be friends like former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to just demand more money and dismiss calls to run a tighter ship.

It's time to take a page from Covington's book, by addressing structural shortfalls and reexamining the cost-effectiveness of programs and staff. This requires a different mindset than the "more, better" tradition of education leadership, with its emphasis on promoting improvement by layering new dollars atop and over existing spending. Covington may well be seen as the avatar of a new era, one in which leaders fuel improvement by stripping the excess and inefficiency from lethargic schools and systems.

Covington probably took office with a game plan in mind. But those district leaders looking for some creative suggestions as to where they might start trimming can start by checking out this collection of research papers and analyses from the January 2010 AEI-Fordham conference "A Penny Saved." More refined versions will be available later in 2010 as a book from Harvard Education Press, but these should do just fine for a start.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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