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As it was, the chaos at the top had engendered a muddy chain of command. Zacarias, for example, told his administrators that they should continue to report to him. At the same time, he instructed staff to give Howard Miller -- who was running the same district out of a different office -- everything he needed and asked for.
But was Zacarias really working alone, without any sort of staff assistance, in re-imagining a $7 billion institution, like a latter-day Abe Lincoln sketching out the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope with a quill pen?
Not exactly, answered Coyne. “A number of people participated without knowing it. Dr. Zacarias would reach out to people in the organization and outside of it. And they might not even know that, through this conversation, they were involved in what turned out to be the restructuring plan.”
Board members certainly had no advance briefing. Zacarias arrived to explain the plan to them just before the October 26 public unveiling at a news conference. But he was waved out of the room by a board attorney who insisted that the item had not been posted in advance, and thus could not be discussed.
For his part, Zacarias said he developed the plan with the help of senior aides -- whom he did not specify -- even though they might not have fully comprehended the thrust of the conversation. Some top advisers, including Deputy Superintendent Lilliam Castillo, the head of instruction, did not return several phone calls for this story. But those who did maintained they had no part in the Zacarias plan.
As a culminating manifesto, the Zacarias plan is a strikingly thin document. Though 31 “pages” long in printed form, it consists mostly of organizational charts and bullet points in oversize type that run about 30 words to a page. Its central feature is to divide the district into 12 or so geographic zones. Each would be run by a regional administration. This was the very setup in which Zacarias came of age as a rising administrator; the school system only recently -- under predecessor Sidney A. Thompson -- moved to a different design, featuring administrative “clusters” for one or two high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools. The clusters, said Zacarias in an interview, “clearly diffused people all over the place without the necessary resources.” Consolidated regional offices could offer more. “You do have to have someone between the district and the schools. I’m not talking about huge bureaucracy; I‘m talking about services. Not only that, but with the clusters, parents didn’t have a sense of access to someone with authority.”
Deputy Superintendent Ron Prescott had no role in the plan, but he liked the retro framework. “We got rid of regions because the unions leaned on us about administrative costs,” he said. “But the schools didn‘t stop having problems; it’s just that there was nobody out there to deal with them.”
Zacarias also borrowed liberally from his experience in other ways. The LEARN school-reform effort, for example, sought to put schools in control of their own budgets. Zacarias wanted to try this at the proposed regional offices. And he wanted to include public forums in the process of selecting regional superintendents -- just as he had to submit to forums when he sought the district‘s top job.
Without spelling out details, the plan also embodies an administrator’s wish list on teachers, indicating that in exchange for higher pay, teachers must submit to “more efficient work rules,” “pay for performance” and “benchmarking.” In other words, it should be easier to get rid of unwanted tenured teachers who aren‘t cutting it.
And Zacarias was clearly paying attention when Mayor Richard Riordan and UCLA management guru Bill Ouchi arranged for him and senior staff to get real-world-style, corporate management training two years ago from McKinsey and Co. The Zacarias plan floats the concept of “outsourcing” noneducation functions -- like payroll, for example -- that could be handled more cheaply and efficiently by the private sector. Other business-style reforms include a computer analysis that would accurately assess teacher performance -- something the district is nowhere near achieving technically. In addition, wrote Zacarias, every “functional group” involved in student instruction “must make specific written recommendations for improving student standardized test scores at least 5 percent per year for five years.”
Notably, the org chart pushes Miller back to his original role, as head of facilities -- while also allowing Miller to be a reorganizational officer. In all, the plan includes eight pages of org charts -- a bureaucratic view of the world from a careerlong bureaucrat. That’s a sharp contrast to the pragmatic pitch put forward by Ramon Cortines, the blunt, 67-year-old school administrator who will take over as interim superintendent in January. His top two stated priorities? Books and clean bathrooms.
Critics have long wondered what it would take for district officials to decide that giving high school students enough textbooks and clean bathrooms is a) possible and b) mandatory. Cortines would be a hero if he gets that far during his brief watch, which he expects to last less than a year.