Chapter 11 for schools

So, what strategy has a real chance of helping school districts like Rosemont when they become trapped in this type of leadership crisis whirlpool? Radical surgery.

In fact, this is a good time to dust off the old adage: “Schools should be run like a business.” When a business hits bankruptcy there are rules that apply depending on the legal charter for the business. Some of those rules make sense for school districts that are failing miserably academically and/or financially.

The suggestions I make below would work in New York State and other states as well. First, the school board and superintendent must be removed. Usually for businesses in bankruptcy a court appointed receiver takes over the business.

In New York State, historical examples of the state education department intervening in such cases proved they were unable to succeed in this kind of intervention.

The New York State Education Department is presently staffed primarily by midcareer teachers who couldn’t land administrative positions so they took a job at the state education department. Very few state education department employees have experience as superintendents, school business officials or principals so the idea that they could lead a school district restructuring process is irrational.

But the state education department might be able to develop a cadre of retired school superintendents and assistant superintendents with the expertise and experience to turn around these districts with consistent problems in academic or financial performance.
Care would need to be taken to ensure that the job was reserved for superintendents and assistant superintendents who created real positive academic and financial change for the districts they served.

Good old boys and girls with political connections who made their names with their charming personalities need not apply. Some states have already moved in this direction with mixed results. States would have to avoid the Flint, MI, issue where the interim replacement city manager who had been put in place by the governorof Michigan approved a change in the water supply that resulted in lead poisoning for many children in the city. The people who come in to take over have to know what they are doing and have to be free of undue political pressure.

School administrators who know how to analyze data and determine improvement priorities, initiate successful academic and financial change and evaluate and mentor real education leaders are needed.

The school board would have to be replaced by a team of three retired superintendents or assistant superintendents with expertise in school finances, school academic performance and school operations. Members of the school board at the time of this replacement would not be eligible to run for the school board in the future.

This interim school board would be selected by the state education department and each member of the interim school board would be paid $12,000 per year as consultants for their service (no district contributions for medical insurance or retirement benefits).

The first task of this interim school board would be to select an interim superintendent who would run the district for the next two years and be paid as a consultant with no medical insurance or retirement contributions. This interim superintendent would be paid at the same rate as the outgoing superintendent. This interim superintendent would come from the cadre of experts developed by the state education department.

The cost of the new leadership team should be comparable to the team being replaced given the absence of benefit costs for the newly hired consultants.

To make this plan work, taxpayers would have to get over the concerns about “double dipping” by retirees who collect a pension from their retirement and a salary at the same time. In the end, these are the best candidates to complete the required restructuring. And they’re the least expensive way to get the job done effectively.

All existing administrators (academic and civil service) in the district at the time of the restructuring would become probationary employees losing their tenure/permanent status for at least two years and possibly longer while the district is restructured.

Depending on the severity of the student academic performance and financial problems, a percentage of teaching and nonteaching employees with tenure or permanent status as civil service employees (between five percent and 50 percent, a percentage set by state education department guidelines) would lose tenure/permanent superintendent would come from the cadre of experts developed by the state education department.

The cost of the new leadership team should be comparable to the team being replaced given the absence of benefit costs for the newly hired consultants.

To make this plan work, taxpayers would have to get over the concerns about “double dipping” by retirees who collect a pension from their retirement and a salary at the same time. In the end, these are the best candidates to complete the required restructuring.

And they’re the least expensive way to get the job done effectively.

All existing administrators (academic and civil service) in the district at the time of the restructuring would become probationary employees losing their tenure/permanent status for at least two years and possibly longer while the district is restructured.

Depending on the severity of the student academic performance and financial problems, a percentage of teaching and nonteaching employees with tenure or permanent status as civil service employees (between five percent and 50 percent, a percentage set by state education department guidelines) would lose tenure/permanent status for at least two years with the decision of who loses tenure/permanent status resting with the interim superintendent after s/he had been on the job for 90 days.

The interim superintendent would be provided by the state education department with a separate restructuring budget equal to up to 3 percent of the district’s latest annual budget to hire consultants to identify necessary structural changes to improve the district’s academic and financial performance and to help evaluate the performance of teachers, administrators and support staff to determine who should stay and who should go and to help retrain those who stay.

If necessary, the interim superintendent could apply to an appropriate court for a waiver to any specific provisions for union contracts which impede restructuring. The law enacted to provide this school district restructuring authority would need to identify the criteria the judge would use to make contract provision nullification decisions.

Done right, a two-year turnaround is possible. In order for these changes to have a real chance for long-term success and to avoid the sand castles on the beach syndrome the interim school board would need to serve two more years while a return to an elected school board is phased in.

During the first of these two years two newly elected community school board members with three-year terms would be added to the school board and a permanent superintendent hired by those five school board members (three interim members and two newly elected members). During year two, following the departure of the interim superintendent two more newly elected school board members with three-year terms would be added for a total of seven members on the school board.

In year three of the restructuring, following the departure of the interim superintendent, the full complement of elected school members would take their seats (no previous school board members would be allowed to run in future school board elections) with the standard three-year rotation for school board members set in place.

As the last of these newly elected board members take their seats on the school board the three interim board would members leave the district.