Principals beckoned to fly solo

August 15, 2005

The district has invited 85 principals from "high performing" schools to cast off a layer of oversight and operate more independently next year. But a provision for greater financial freedom that would kick in the following year makes some principals nervous.

The new decentralization program, called AMPS for Autonomous Management and Performance Schools, gives "star principals" new powers ranging from doing less paperwork to bypassing middle management and reporting directly to central office.

However, another of those powers, scheduled to kick in in 2006, involves adopting a new approach to budgeting. Known as per-pupil budgeting, it would allot schools a basic dollar amount for each student, plus additional funds for children with special needs, such as bilingual education or special education. Principals would then have the flexibility to spend those funds on whatever mix of teachers, textbooks and programs they decide would meet their schools' needs.

The hitch, though, is the possibility that participating schools would bear the full cost of the teachers they hire. Currently, schools get teachers based on complicated staffing formulas, and the district picks up the tab, whether they employ expensive, experienced teachers or less expensive new ones.

Billed as fair and more responsive to school-level decision making, per-pupil budgeting has some principals wondering if their bottom lines will shrink.

"Is my school going to lose some positions?" asks Principal Katherine Konopasek of Murray Language Academy in Hyde Park.

Likewise, Paul Zeitler, principal of Sheridan Elementary in Bridgeport, expresses reservations about per-pupil budgeting. "The concept is sound, but I have to be convinced," he says.

Principals in AMPS are watching intently as per-pupil funding makes its debut this fall in the district-run new schools opening under the Renaissance 2010 initiative. (Charter schools have been using the system since they were launched.) Some principals of Renaissance schools have openly expressed fears that per pupil budgeting will shortchange their schools. (See Catalyst, February 2005)

CPS Budget Director Pedro Martinez concedes that size is a factor—enrollment at startup schools is artificially small as they grow into full capacity.

But further complicating matters is another per-pupil budgeting technicality; namely, how much will schools be charged for teachers—an average salary for each one hired or the actual salary based on experience and the union contract?

The first option would approximate the status quo: Schools hire whomever they wish and the district bears the cost. Critics raise the issue of equity, noting that better or more experienced teachers gravitate toward the best schools under this model.

The second option, based on actual salaries, would level the playing field, they say. But opponents of the latter method argue that it would drive principals to get rid of experienced staff just to save money.

Elsewhere, most districts that use per-pupil budgeting have adopted the average salary model. Oakland, Calif., is an exception, but administrators there report numerous complications in the first year. (See Catalyst, February 2005)

Martinez says he is "fully loading" the per-pupil rates to entice principals to convert, but the salary issue is still in the air.

"We're serious about autonomy," Martinez says. "We're holding [effective principals] up and recognizing that they're driving the system."

Two area offices will close

Meanwhile, the AMPS program is triggering the consolidation of two area instruction offices, a layer of middle management between principals and central office. Areas 5 and 20, which oversee 22 elementary schools and 13 high schools on the North Side, will close this summer, a move district officials say will save nearly $800,000 in tough financial times.

Don Fraynd, principal of Jones College Prep High School, is celebrating the opportunity to opt out of area office supervision. He says he and his staff can do a better job with walkthroughs (a practice to observe teaching and suggest improvements) and other supports provided by area instructional officers (AIOs). Jones teachers are already planning their own walkthroughs for next year, he notes.

Principals who are newer on the job, however, may be less inclined to give up supports offered by area offices. Murray's Konopasek, who's been a principal for two years, says an AIO helped her navigate tricky financial audits last year. She also wants to retain the option of attending monthly area meetings to stay informed on districtwide initiatives.

Some veterans, though, say they will gain more than they will miss. Principal Zeitler, who was a property manager in a previous career, believes he will find ways to save money when he assumes control of building maintenance.

He also likes that he will be able to choose curriculum materials that are not on the district's approved list. Sheridan posts some of the highest science scores in the district and uses a different science program that's not part of the CPS Math and Science Initiative.

"Why would I ditch something that works?" Zeitler asks.

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or e-mail myers@catalyst-chicago.org.