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A DOE plan to personalize bureaucracy is making unions nervous

In a quiet project that has union activists gritting their teeth with concern, the Department of Education is once again moving to reshape its own bureaucracy — this time by offering about 300 schools the option to transform the way they manage basic back-office tasks, from busing to budget planning to monitoring medical vaccinations.

The change, which principals are learning about this month and which is set to begin in September, would be the third time these schools have transformed the way they work with the system bureaucracy since Mayor Bloomberg took control of the schools in 2002.

The way operational services are handled has already changed several times since 2002. When Bloomberg first took office, 32 individual district offices — plus separate offices for high schools, alternative schools, and special education schools — managed school operations. Those were replaced by six offices serving 10 regions after Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s first reorganization of the school system, and then by a single Integrated Service Center, with five borough branches, after Klein revised the structure again in 2006. During the 2006 reorganization, instructional services were also relocated, to a group of nine support organizations from which principals now choose one.

The new format would further personalize services by expanding a model that’s been quietly piloted for the last two years under the name of the Children First Network. Rather than leaning on the imposing ISC for help writing their budgets and managing paperwork-heavy responsibilities like special education, the 90 schools in the Children First Network bypass the ISC altogether. Instead, each group of about 20 schools — the configuration known in all of the citywide support organizations as a “network” — works with a team of 13 staff members who do the same tasks performed by the ISC, but on a smaller scale.

Because these staff members focus only on the 20 schools they are assigned to, principals in the program say they are less like bureaucrats and more like partners. “I know these people really, really well. They’re not some faceless bureaucrat sitting halfway across the city that I only know through e-mail and phone calls,” said a principal in the pilot phase of the network, Michael Soet of Brooklyn’s International High School. “These are people that I really know well.”

The close attention means principals can free themselves of much of the business of running a school day to day and focus instead on the business of educating their students. Before she joined CFN, Marisol Bradbury, principal at Bedford Stuyvesant Preparatory High School, said she spent hours managing tasks unrelated to instruction. “You would have to call one person, then call someone else, and then send that person to a different office, and then that person would have to communicate with someone else,” she said. “With CFN, it’s been such a better way of living.”

Chief Schools Officer Eric Nadelstern, who launched CFN when he headed the system’s empowerment schools program and is continuing to manage it, said the satisfaction has translated into better schools. Ratings of all the school system’s roughly 70 networks of schools indicate that the first network to join CFN has risen from about the middle of the pack to the No. 1 network in the city, Nadelstern said. He said the ratings, which are based on student test scores, graduation rates, and other measures included on the school progress reports, will become public in the next few months.

The ratings are one reason Nadelstern and Klein decided to expand the pilot, which in the first two years included just four networks and was funded by a private grant from the NewSchools Venture Fund. Starting next fall, the department will open CFN up to as many as 20 networks, an expansion that could bring more than 350 schools into the program.

While Nadelstern focuses on the instructional advantages he hopes will come out of the expansion, the news of the change has created something of a frenzy among some who worry it will cause confusion of the sort that accompanied previous reorganizations of the school system’s bureaucracy — and at the worst possible time, during a budget crisis. A teachers union source who is familiar with the plan pointed out that the expansion would mean moving as many as 128 administrative staff from the ISC to networks. He said that kind of change looks unmistakably like a third reorganization of the school system. “I don’t know how else you can look at it, because you’re going to be shifting support people across the city of New York,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are still underway with school officials.

Though the DOE has insisted the project won’t carry any new costs, and that it could even save money over time, the principals union is not yet convinced. “There is a certain amount of automatic suspicion because the DOE has spent a lot of money over time,” said Chiara Coletti, the union’s communications director. “We want them to demonstrate to us why it is cost neutral.”

Nadelstern and department officials insist that the change is not a reorganization, but rather an expansion of options. Principals already choose which instructional support system they’d like from a menu of options; now, Nadelstern says, they can also choose how they’d like to have their back-office needs supported. “Choice and competition have proven effective on the instructional side of the equation,” Nadelstern said. “We think it’s going to prove equally effective on the operational side.”