HOW TO LEAD: I often get in trouble for saying this, but I actually think it's true—that collaboration and consensus-building and all those things are, quite frankly, overrated. None of you CEOs run your companies by committee. So why should we run a school district by committee? The bottom line is that in order to run an effective organization, you need one leader who has a very clear vision for what needs to happen and the authority to make that happen.
FIRING EMPLOYEES: We had to conduct a reduction in force of about 500 employees in the district. And that included about 250 or so teachers. We made the decision that we were going to conduct the [layoffs] by quality, not by seniority. It caused this firestorm.
From a managerial standpoint, it would make no sense to do a layoff by seniority only. In a school district that is struggling as hard as ours is, we have to be able to look at the quality and the value that different employees are adding.
MONEY FOR NOTHING: We spend more money per child in this city than almost any other urban jurisdiction in the country, and our results are at the absolute bottom. So it goes against the idea that you have to put more money into education and that's how you're going to fix it.
It comes down to two basic things about why we spend so much money and the results aren't as good. First is a complete and utter lack of accountability in this system. And the second is a lack of political courage on the part of most of the people who are running cities and school districts.
We have a system in which you can have been teaching for 25, 30 years. Every year, you could actually take your children backward—not just not improve their learning as much as you should, but your kids can move backward in your classroom every year—and you will continue to have a job. You will continue to get your step raise. You will continue to get your negotiated union increases. Where else can that happen, except in public education? So that lack of accountability is a significant problem.
And then on the courage part, I think that when you're talking about making the difficult decisions that are necessary in this climate—closing schools, firing teachers, removing principals, et cetera—those are the things that make most politicians run for the hills because it makes your phone ring off the hook and people are saying oh, don't close this school, don't fire this person.
OUT-OF-CONTROL SPENDING: When I came on board, people told me to find out where the money is going, and so I sent people out. One of my assistants came back to me and said, "Did you know that we spend $80 million a year in this city transporting a few thousand kids to special-education placements across the city?" And I did the quick back-of-the-envelope math and it turned out to be $18,000 per kid, per year.
And I thought, that's crazy. I said, well, I don't know anything about running bus routes, but I'm pretty sure I can do it for cheaper than $18,000. With $18,000 a year, you could buy the kid a Saturn the first year and a driver for the Saturn every year after that!
So I said, this is going to be a good one. We save the money; we're more efficient; we push the money down to the classroom. And what people said was, no, you can't do that because for decades, the district had done such a poor job of transporting these kids to their placements that now it's under a court order.
There's a court-appointed special master who now runs the bus system, and he's allowed to spend as much money as he wants to as long as he gets the kids to school on time. All we can do is pay the bill. We have no ability to control costs. It's an insane system that's been set up over time because of the dysfunction of the school district.
VOUCHERS AND CHARTER SCHOOLS: We have a very strong choice dynamic in this city. About a third of the school-age children go to charter schools. We have the traditional public schools, and then we also have about 2,000 kids who attend private schools through the use of vouchers. We call it the tri-sector approach. I think it works extraordinarily well.
Laying the Groundwork
November 23, 2009