Schools sacrifice services to keep managers

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In November 1996, the Reform Board offered to pay for an operations or business manager for each of 38 high schools on probation—through the 1998-99 school year. The idea was to relieve principals of budgeting, financial and other administrative work so they could focus on instructional leadership.

As 1998-99 comes to a close, most principals contacted by Catalyst say they will cut services or programs, such as field trips, after-school activities or student incentives, to retain their operations and business managers.

Janice Ollarvia, principal of Fenger High School, says she couldn’t do without Operations Manager Estelle Dobbins, a former Catholic school business manager of 15 years.

“Having an operations manager worked exactly as [Paul] Vallas had proposed,” she says. “With Estelle, I increase the amount of time I spend in the halls and classrooms. She’s brought us into the 20th century and computerized everything. Now I can’t imagine operating without her.”

Before Dobbins arrived, Ollarvia would devote more than an hour each day to financial matters. She would sign check after check for sports programs or busing and approve purchase orders, sorting the carbon copies into piles. “I would spend an incredible amount of time just finding the checks,” laughs Ollarvia.

The principal says she will forego increased spending on security to keep Dobbins.

Operations managers make $55,000 to $75,000; business managers, who have less responsibility, make $40,000 to $55,000.

Of the 22 schools contacted by Catalyst in April, 17 were juggling their budgets to retain their operations or business managers, and one was closing the position but planning to hire the operations manager in another capacity. Operations managers at two schools said they would not be retained; they cited less-than-sanguine relationships with their principals as the reason. Two schools were undecided.

While confident about their contributions, some managers are uneasy about the sacrifices schools must make to keep them. “I think we’re making a difference indirectly by bringing services into the school,” says Jose Sotelo, business manager at Manley High. “The principal wants to retain me. In a way, that’s positive news, but I feel bad because they have to fund this position with state Chapter 1 money, and I don’t think that’s fair to the school.”

“Keeping Jose is going to have an impact on what we are doing, but it’s worth the sacrifice,” says Manley High Principal Katherine Flanagan. “We must make shifts in what we want to do, but on the other hand, if our financial records are in place and our money is spent wisely [because of Jose], it’s a good decision in the long run.”

Flanagan is so pleased with Sotelo, who has taken it upon himself to coordinate school technology, that she is promoting him to operations manager even though that will potentially cost an additional $20,000.

She says she will decrease spending on after-school curriculum, field trips, equipment and student incentives. She also notes that Sotelo’s bookkeeping has allowed Manley to “recoup money we didn’t even know we had.”

Fenger’s Ollarvia says that like Sotelo, Dobbins has been a financial asset: The school received an increase in its discretionary money when Dobbins spearheaded a campaign to get low-income parents to sign their children up for free or reduced-price lunches. Both federal Title I and state Chapter 1 funds are tied to free-lunch counts.

At Crane Tech, Operations Manager June Collins, a former city program developer and registered nurse, also helped rebuild and coordinate the school’s health occupation program, which is one of only three in the Chicago Public Schools that have been approved by the Illinois Department of Public Health. Collins is being retained.

But for some schools, such as Robeson High, no amount of fiddling with the budget will free up the required funds. “Our discretionary state and federal Chapter 1 is decreasing so I don’t think I can do it next year,” says Principal James Breashears. “It’s a desirable position to have, and the first opportunity I get, I’ll reinstate the position. We were all made aware that this would happen, but when it happens, it’s still a burden.”

Many principals and local school councils now view the position as a “necessity” that the board should continue to fund. “It’s like having an engineer. Schools should not have to take state Chapter 1 money and spend it on something that the board ought to provide,” insists one principal, who asked to remain anonymous.

The Chicago Principals and Administration Association has taken the position that operations and business managers should continue to be funded by the School Board. David Peterson, assistant to the president, says the association will raise the issue at its next meeting with CEO Paul Vallas.

One operations manager notes the irony of this position. “When the board first introduced the concept, they tried to make the operations manager equal to the principal, but there can only be one head of the school,” the operations manager recalls. “The principals balked at that, and they balked at the salaries.”

Several schools also have appealed to the board’s Office of Accountability for continued funding.

The local school council at Vaughn Occupational High School has been writing letters to Vallas and the Office of Accountability since early March. “There’s no way we can come up with that money,” says LSC Chair Luna Martinez. “And we feel that principals need that time in the classroom. The effect of taking away the business manager is that too much would be taken away from the kids.”

Martinez says the business manager “is part of our team now. In my letter to Vallas, I asked him how he would feel if the mayor said that he couldn’t have his chief financial officer anymore. What would he do?”

‘Not an asset’

However, the new arrangement did not work out in every school. Principal Floyd Banks of Dunbar Vocational, for example, says that having an operations manager has not been an asset; he plans to retain his operations manager as a grant writer instead. “Most come from the business area and have no knowledge of day-to-day operations of a school, so we’ve had to teach them,” Banks explains. “And then you might as well do it yourself.”

A few operations managers report that poor relations with their principals have prevented them from performing meaningful work; instead, they do janitorial tasks such as opening locked doors. Because the job description is flexible and the position is under the control of individual principals, the duties vary from school to school.

Meanwhile, schools that have carved out the money to retain their managers next year worry about the future. “We’ll use supplemental grant money to keep the position,” says Judith Hernandez, principal of Senn Academy. “But I don’t know if we can do this every year. It’s very frustrating. We really need someone to be fiscally responsible.”

Emanuel Purvis, the operations manager at Westinghouse High, notes, though: “Funding is an issue all over.” As in your personal life, he says, schools must respond to what they need most.