Flunking the Superintendent

EARLIER THIS MONTH, Minneapolis School Board Chairman Bill Green made a ripple in local education circles when he broke ranks with his colleagues and issued a failing grade to Public Strategies Group, Superintendent Peter Hutchinson's private management firm, during the board's second-quarter evaluation of the firm. Green's low grade cost PSG more than $10,000 in performance-based pay and made the front page of the Star Tribune.

Green's marks reduced PSG's overall grade from a B to a C and publicized a concern that has been percolating among administrators, teachers, and active parents in the district for months: Is PSG doing enough work to justify its hefty paychecks? "If the rating was just for Peter, I probably would have given him a B," says Green. "Peter has been tireless. But when we contracted with PSG, we set aside more than three times the maximum superintendent's salary [$366,000 for this fiscal year, as opposed to the individual maximum of $108,781 plus benefits allowed under Minnesota law] because we understood there would be five or six people working on [the schools].

"But the evaluations I've read say PSG has not been much of a presence at [district headquarters] or in the schools. They are the ones who wanted this to be a pay-for-performance structure. That means people have to perform before they get paid." Given the opportunity, Green adds pointedly, he would have further reduced PSG's second-quarter compensation below the $75,000 they received.

At root, Green questions whether the nontraditional relationship between the district and the firm amounts to more than bureaucratic smoke and mirrors. "The district is being modified," he says, "but it remains to be seen if those modifications really mean anything. Associate superintendents are now called executive directors, and they might oversee areas D, E, and F rather than A, B, and C. Those kinds of changes are the easiest to make. I want to know how they connect to the students and the teachers in the classroom."

Hutchinson claims that PSG is "getting rid of the bureaucracy and impediments to change." He acknowledges that Green wants PSG's next contract to stipulate more specific activities rather than targeting a series of district-wide changes and goals as the basis for the board's evaluation. He argues that a broad results-oriented approach is preferable: "Quite simply, if the kids don't learn, I should be viewed as a failure," he says. But as numerous critics have pointed out, quality of learning is a very hard thing to measure in practice.

Green says the school board itself shares the blame due to the ambiguous signals it's sent PSG regarding its expectations. "I sincerely hope in the next contract that we know what the hell is going on [and can be] more specific in what we require of them," he says. But that too may be easier said than done. During the three years PSG has contracted with the district, it has been increasingly apparent that factional politics play a role in the board. The more senior board members--who had to endure the controversies of the Robert Ferrera era and turned to PSG to bail them out--are generally more inclined to support Hutchinson now, and to give the firm a wider berth in the way it administers the district. All four of these veteran board members gave PSG a grade of B or better, while Ross Taylor, who, like Green, joined the board two years ago, gave them a C. And many observers of the board expect recent addition Louis King, who could not offer a grade because he wasn't on the board during the period being assessed, to favor tougher scrutiny of PSG's operation.

With contract negotiations looming that promise to be as bruising as last year's acrimonious battle, Green remains surprisingly upbeat--with a caveat: "Believe it or not, while I'm not enamored of Peter, I am impressed by him and feel the district is lucky to have him. But if he insists in coming with PSG, we may have to lower the pay ceiling or do a better job of specifying what it is we are getting from them. Good things are happening: Because of the leadership of the teachers union, we will now be able to get rid of problem teachers using due process. When I think of those kinds of things, I know we are heading in the right direction. But I'm not sure what role PSG plays in that." CP

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