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Easy Pickings.

Few public officials are better paid--or less accountable--than school administrators

Most Buffalo school administrators are former teachers who have learned that there is good money to be made running a poor district. School officials accounted for 81 of the city's 100 highest paid administrators in 1996-97.

How much better paid are school administrators than their city government counterparts? Seventy-five made more in 1996-97 than Mayor Anthony Masiello, who ranked 91st overall among city administrators. The schools' top budget official earned nearly $24,000 more than the mayor's chief number cruncher. Seventeen principals made more than the police commissioner, including four who pulled down more than $100,000. Even the School Board's secretary made more than most of the city government's top administrators; Alvina Staley earned $63,189, much of it in overtime, and her pay topped those of the commissioners of parks, streets, and community development.

Sixty-five percent of the administrators in the city who made over $65,000 work for the schools. In 1996-97, 191 school administrators were paid more than $65,000, including 40 who earned more than $80,000. Superintendent James Harris topped the list: His $135,000 salary makes him the city's highest paid public official. Benefits for city school administrators are vastly superior to those of the mayor's management staff. School administrators who retired the summer of 1996, for example, walked away with an average of $49,940 in early retirement incentives and compensation for unused sick time; department heads in the city get nothing when they leave.

While the city high school principals' pay -- $94,486--is higher than those in the suburbs, most of their students' academic performance is not. Most city high schools are at the bottom of the achievement ladder among schools. Student performance is not tied to principals' pay.

The district's administrators rank among the best paid managers in city government--and the least accountable. They're rarely evaluated. And forget about demotions or dismissals. All but a handful have what amounts to lifetime job security. Even assistant superintendents are members of a union and expected to supervise and, if necessary, discipline fellow members of their union.

The situation in Buffalo is worse than in many other districts, but in many ways it typifies the entrenched bureaucrats found in school systems throughout the nation. "I think the public education system is about as unaccountable as anything the human mind has conceived," says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota. "What's happened in Buffalo and a number of other places is that the preferences of adults have become more important than the needs of children. Our school systems are fundamentally set up as employment agencies rather than educational institutions."

Buffalo City Comptroller Joel Giambra complains that there's no link between the high salaries being earned by school administrators and the performance of their students. The district usually evaluates new administrators before they're granted permanent status after three years on the job, but the evaluation criteria is fuzzy, and it's rare that anyone is turned down. A curriculum audit conducted in March 1997 by a team of national experts found a haphazard and incomplete evaluation process. Auditors randomly pulled the files of 40 administrators and found 24 had no evaluations. The grading system used on the remaining 16 was generous. Administrators were given the highest grade possible 87 percent of the time and unsatisfactory ratings were issued in less than 1 percent of the categories in which they were graded. "It's been 24 years since my last evaluation," one administrator told auditors. "There isn't an evaluation system after administrators become tenured," another said.

When James Harris came aboard as superintendant nearly three years ago, he inherited a management staff of about 220, including assistant superintendants, directors and supervisors who work out of the central office, and principals and assistant principals working in schools. He had the authority to replace only six of the 220: three associate superintendents, two special assistants focused on budget and media relations, and a labor negotiator. Removing any of the others would have required the district to prove incompetence or misconduct. Simply doing a mediocre job, or the emergence of someone better suited for the position, are not sufficient cause to remove or demote a school administrator in Buffalo.

Unions have such a stranglehold that Harris couldn't even hire his own confidential secretary. Union work rules dictate who he got and, unlike the situation in most workplaces, she is a union member and not considered confidential management. In contrast, the mayor not only can hire his own secretary, but also commissioners, deputy commissioners and a host of other managers. In all, the mayor has control over 42 management positions that are exempt from union representation.

Masiello describes the district's lack of management rights as "an obstacle" "Management needs to have the rights and flexibility to manage and hold people accountable," he said.

But the times are changing elsewhere. A growing number of states and school districts are holding principals and other school administrators more accountable by regularly evaluating their performance and in some cases eliminating tenure. While tenure for principals is embedded in New York state law, it is being challenged around the country. Massachusetts, Georgia, North Carolina and Oregon have stripped' their principals of tenure in recent years, reducing to 16 the number of states that provide principals with tenure.

The Chicago school system, considered one of the nation's most troubled districts in the '80s, has been the most aggressive in holding administrators accountable. Linking job security to student performance has been a cornerstone of efforts to improve the district, says G. Alfred Hess, director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University and an observer to the Chicago reform movement. "We saw principals' lifetime tenure as one of the major problems in getting school improvement to happen," he says. "The leadership was not accountable for the performance of the kids,"

The Illinois State Legislature enacted reforms in 1988 and 1995. Councils consisting primarily of parents have gained greater control over school budgets and can hire and fire principals. The mayor appoints the school board and hires the top five central office administrators. The teachers union's power has been reduced and principals lost their tenure altogether. As a result, ineffective teachers and administrators at poorly performing schools can be fired. "The difference is night and day," Hess says. "Previously, principals understood their main job was to make sure their school didn't get into the news, except for something wonderful. And as long as they kept their school out of trouble, nobody cared what happened. Nobody ever got fired because the kids didn't learn. Now the primary question about the performance of school officials is whether their kids are learning or not."

The reforms are paying off. The percentage of students reading at national norms climbed from 24 to 35 percent from 1990 to 1998. "I would say 85 percent of the credit for changes in student achievement relate to the ability to change the principal at the school," Hess says. "Effective principals make or break improving schools."

"If you want to improve student achievement, you have to tie job security to whether kids are learning more. Otherwise educators' prejudice about the ability of low-income and minority kids to learn gets in the way of change," Hess says. "If you can say, `It's not my fault, it's the kids I have to teach,' you're not going to get much change in those schools. But if people say, `Your job security depends on whether kids in your classes are learning,' then you have a whole different lever for change."

JAMES HEANEY is an editor at The Buffalo News, where he covered education as a reporter for five years and wrote the series from which this article is adapted.
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Title Annotation:effects of teacher tenure
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1999
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