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City schools’ CEO Alonso orders central office reorganization

Plan includes more support to schools; administrators union says some positions are at risk

Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso has ordered yet another reorganization at the central office that could eliminate positions, a move that he says is not a cost-saving measure even though the system faces a $73 million shortfall in next year’s budget.

Alonso said Thursday that the plan is still in the preliminary stages but will continue his three-year effort to decentralize the administrative offices and push more resources into schools. His main goal is to require that administrators be more versatile in responding to the needs of students and principals, even outside their areas of expertise.

“The core function of the central office is to change to accommodate the changes in schools,” he said.

Job descriptions could broaden and the number of positions could shift, Alonso said, but he added that he does not know if any staff will lose their jobs.

But at least one department in the system has alerted staff of possible job eliminations, according to Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrators union, which represents more than 100 central office employees.

Gittings said it’s “unconscionable the mental frustration that central office staff have to go through every year, worrying about job security and providing for their families.”

Alonso said the reorganization is an attempt to continue chipping away at an outdated “command and control” central office model as his administration pushes for schools to have autonomy over their resources and accountability for their results.

“I like movement,” Alonso said. “School systems tend to be set in stone, and I don’t want anyone to get comfortable.”

A team has been assembled to lead “out-of-the-box” thinking to design the school system’s new organization chart, which will be presented to Alonso later this month. The recommendations will then be given to the city school board.

City school board President Neil Duke said he welcomes the plan. “Inertia and refusal to change organizationally, even in the face of a new landscape of challenges, is the sure path to failure or, at best, mediocrity,” Duke said in an e-mail.

It would be the third radical reorganization plan Alonso has ordered during his tenure, though the others have been more drastic.

In 2008, faced with a $50 million shortfall, Alonso cut 310 jobs from the central office and sent $70 million from its budget into schools. He also put administrators back into the classroom and created “networks” that ran support programs in schools. In 2009, he cut another 179 central office jobs.

Currently there are 992 central employees — from a little more than 1,500 when he arrived in 2007.

Karen Hawley Miles, president and executive director of Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit organization that helps large urban districts, including Baltimore, decide how to use their resources, said that Alonso’s strategy reflects his tenure’s trademarks of efficiency, performance, school autonomy and decentralization.

The reorganization “really means that the central office is going to play a very different role in providing and collecting services and information to schools,” she said.

Alonso said he has met with his chief cabinet members to outline his goals, leaving them responsible to reorganize their departments to meet them.

He said among the stipulations was that he did not “want the conversation about how to support schools to be about savings.”

“If it becomes a cost-reduction exercise, then it’s about the loss of people rather than supporting schools in a new way,” he said. “If the recommendations say that there should be fewer jobs, then we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

He also rejected the notion that a new landmark Baltimore Teachers Union contract, estimated to cost about $60 million, will cost jobs. He said the shortfall in next year’s budget is due primarily to projections of a decrease in state aid, and increases in costs for benefits, labor and utilities. The budget for next fiscal year has not been presented yet, but such a shortfall this early in the process is not unusual. The current year’s budget is $1.23 billion.

But Gittings said he has received word that some positions would be eliminated in the school system’s Office of Communications and Community Engagement, led by Alonso’s chief spokesman Michael Sarbanes.

“It concerns me that one office has already told staff that their jobs would be eliminated,” Gittings said. “Other members of management have been very cooperative and trying their best to sustain and keep their staff.”

Sarbanes said that “nobody’s been told their jobs would be eliminated — the conversation has been about how to do the jobs to support family and communities more effectively. It may mean more positions, it may mean positions in different places. That has yet to be determined.”

The central office reorganization could expand school “networks,” created under Alonso in his first reorganization. The employees involved in the networks provide support like tutoring and conflict resolution and act as liaisons between schools and the central office.

The schools chief said that the central office is disconnected from what is happening in the schools. “There isn’t this sense of global responsibility,” he said.

The system has remained more reactive than proactive when schools experience trouble, Alonso said, and employees need to become knowledgeable about more than just the services they specialize in. Streamlining communication and information will become pertinent, he said.

Gittings said he supports the CEO’s approach of providing principals with resources from the central office but hopes employees will receive professional development or training for any additional responsibilities.

Miles said the city is one of a handful of urban school systems that are working toward becoming more efficient by streamlining their central offices.

“Baltimore is on the other end of the spectrum from districts that are highly centralized,” she said. “It’s extremely complex but on the cutting edge.”

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