June 1, 1993
by Dr. Doug Magann
[Editor's Note: Several weeks ago The Harbinger became aware that the former
Superintendent of the Mobile County Public Schools, Doug Magann, had drafted
several essays about his experience in Mobile. The Harbinger contacted Magann
and asked if his work could be seen with the understanding that nothing would be
printed without his approval. He agreed.
After reviewing his drafts, Magann's original essays were arranged chronologically, beginning with his
initial interest in Mobile and concluding with the School Board's buy-out of his
contract in February, 1993. In the original draft, he described his experiences
as being somewhat analogous to a courtship, marriage and subsequent divorce.
This analogy has been maintained although The first installment contained in this issue appeared toward the end of the
original draft. It describes the world of public schools and schooling in Mobile
County and highlights some of the societal causes of the situation. The second
essay addresses the power brokers and the influences they weild in public
eduation, and discusses the Fourth Estate -- the media -- and how it shapes the
public perception of education in Mobile. The third essay addresses the
"Cafeteria Bill" and what went on behind-the-scene. The fourth installment
details the ouster of Magann and what was kept out of the termination hearing
because of the settlement.]
After reviewing his drafts,The Harbinger met with Magann and offered to print the essays as a series with relatively minor editorial changes. After several discussions, Magann agreed to permit The Harbinger to publish his drafts.
Magann's original essays were arranged chronologically, beginning with his initial interest in Mobile and concluding with the School Board's buy-out of his contract in February, 1993. In the original draft, he described his experiences as being somewhat analogous to a courtship, marriage and subsequent divorce. This analogy has been maintained althoughThe Harbinger, with Magann's consent, has rearranged some of the essay sections as they are presented in this series.
The first installment contained in this issue appeared toward the end of the original draft. It describes the world of public schools and schooling in Mobile County and highlights some of the societal causes of the situation. The second essay addresses the power brokers and the influences they weild in public eduation, and discusses the Fourth Estate -- the media -- and how it shapes the public perception of education in Mobile. The third essay addresses the "Cafeteria Bill" and what went on behind-the-scene. The fourth installment details the ouster of Magann and what was kept out of the termination hearing because of the settlement.]
To borrow Jonathon Kozol's term, "savage inequalities" exist in the Mobile schools. (Kozol is the author of the best-selling book on public education in America, Savage Inequalities.) They exist between schools in the system, and they certainly exist between all of the Mobile schools and those in other parts of the country.
There are 94 school sites in the Mobile system spread across 1300 square miles of county and containing more than 900 buildings, 450 of which are "portables." Most of the schools are located in the urban and urban fringe areas and more than half of the buildings were constructed prior to 1965 (including many of the portables), and some before 1945. For anyone familiar with school facilities and construction, little more needs to be said about the physical condition of the school system.
The term "portable" is a misnomer. Most of the structures would disintegrate if anyone attempted to move them. In the fall of 1991, the Fire Marshall of Prichard, Alabama condemned several "portables" on a high school campus. The only thing that enabled the system to continue operating that year was the Prichard city limits. Had he been allowed to go beyond them, he would have shut down every school site in the district. The "portables" are frame buildings of about 600-650 square feet that routinely house 30-40 students. They have one exit with a gas heater overhead, no plumbing, are termite infested, and are not connected by covered walkways. Children and teachers slosh through mud and water to change classes on days of inclement weather. Most have neither air-conditioning nor screens.
It was estimated that some 30,000 students were housed in inadequate space, even by Mobile standards. I found it difficult to believe that adults would knowingly allow students and teachers to work in such environments.
In Gainesville, the adult community believed that the school environments should be among the best in the community. They understood that environmental conditions affect the quality of work carried on in them and they committed to assure "parity" among the schools regardless of where they were located. The community approved two capital bond issues during my tenure ($30 million in 1983 and $100 million in 1990) with which we literally rebuilt the existing school system and added to it. Every school had air-conditioning by 1984 and everyone will be thoroughly renovated by 1995. Modern equipment and furniture were part of the package as well. All of this occurred in what a Harvard study-team concluded to be one of the poorest counties in America. But the people there understood the importance of providing adequate learning environments for their children.
The decisions of the Gainesville community in 1983, and again in 1990, not only assured adequate school facilities for years to come, but they also put a lot of people to work during a major recessionary period and softened the blow to the local economy considerably. The same logic is applicable to Mobile.
The facilities, while perhaps the most visible problems, were certainly not the only ones in Mobile. Many students had no textbooks and libraries contained volumes that proclaimed "man would someday go to the moon". Principals hoarded textbooks like packrats and there was no central inventory to enable district staff to even shift existing resources to where they were needed from year to year. This was somewhat understandable from the perspective of the principals, since they had no assurance that the Board would provide for the needs of their schools in subsequent years if they gave up their surplus books.
In Gainesville, the textbook and library book inventories were kept electronically. District staff could compare registration data, school schedules and inventories at any time and make adjustments as needed. Everyone played on the same team and they were assured that, if and when needs developed at their school sites, they would be given the same priority. The focus of the entire school system was on all of the children and teachers rather than on the jealous maintenance of little fiefdoms.
There was no supply warehouse in Mobile and, therefore, no inventory of supplies. Teachers had to purchase most materials out of their pockets and wait for reimbursements or send through purchase requests that took weeks to process and even longer to receive. It was not uncommon for supply requisitions to go unfilled throughout an entire school year. Some local suppliers simply refused to fill the orders because the school district was routinely 120 days late in payment for previous shipments. There was no such thing as a thirty day cash discount for the Mobile schools. Consequently, the system paid top dollar for everything it purchased, when it could find a supplier.
This phenomenon reminded me of situations I observed as a child growing up in Roanoke, Virginia in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Desperate families would borrow money at exorbitant interest rates from "loan companies" or outright "sharks" in order to make ends meet during a crisis, and agree to pay so much a week forever. Most of the families would slip, if not spiral, into eventual bankruptcy, lose their homes and belongings to the "lenders," etc. The Mobile school system was in the same situation. Only the banks and the merchants were making the money.
In Gainesville, teachers ordered supplies over an electronic network, the requisitions were processed automatically, the purchase orders were cut, the appropriate budgets encumbered, and the supplies were usually shipped the same day from the warehouse. We operated on the "silly" notion that it was important to see that teachers had what they needed in order to provide learning opportunities for children. Not so in Mobile. Other things were more important.
Although the Mobile system has a central computer and some terminals scattered around, there is no data "system." There are neither human nor technological networks to maintain files or to allow personnel to share those files, if they existed. The payroll process is illustrative. Timecards are submitted every two weeks for classified personnel and once each month for professional personnel. There are 7000 employees. The time card started with the school bookkeeper, came into payroll, was hand checked there and sent to data processing and entered, returned to payroll for another manual check, back to data processing, then back to payroll and back to the school bookkeeper! And, the error rates were incredible!
A big part of the problem was philosophical. Instead of assuming that everyone, generally speaking, was going to be on the job doing what they were supposed to be doing when they were supposed to be doing it, Mobile assumed that every minute had to be accounted for every pay period. If one begins by assuming that only "exceptions" will be reported, i.e., the days an employee is absent rather than the days he is present, the payroll routine can be established and carried out easily. Further, it is a far more accurate and less costly procedure.
In Florida, and in all of the other districts I had worked in, payroll data were handled at the school sites and audited by the district. The bookkeepers entered the "exceptions" into a networked system at specified times, established programs ran and monitored the payrolls, produced the checks and verification listings, packaged them and sent them back to the various sites for distribution. The payrolls were posted against the General Ledger in the same action. I estimated that a one time investment in network technology and training would result in the elimination of 50 percent of the central clerical positions and a 100 percent improvement in accuracy. The affected personnel could have been shifted to schools where they were sorely needed.
Payroll processing was inefficient, but not as serious as some related problems. When I arrived, there were no checks and balances between the personnel, payroll and budget functions. The Personnel Department was putting people on the payroll, and Payroll was paying them, but no one was checking to see if the positions had been budgeted or what budgets they were in! This state of affairs had created a $4 million overrun the preceding year in the General Fund and was well on the way to doing it again when I caught it. The positions were not encumbered when they were filled and the finance department learned of them only as the expenditures were actually made.
One day, I asked some innocent questions of our instructional supervisors: What was the student failure rate by grade level for the previous year? Blank stares. How many students failed Algebra I? More blank stares. We did not know! What was worse, there was no easy way to find out. There was no data base. The grades were reported and kept at the school sites. Mobile has no way of analyzing student progress (or the lack thereof).
During the year, one middle school was experiencing some extraordinary discipline problems. All of the middle schools were on shaky ground due to overcrowded conditions and understaffing, but this one was out of control to the point that I actually began to fear for the safety of both students and teachers. Toward the end of the year, I replaced the principal and sent in a "swat team" from the district office to restore order.
After school was out for the summer, we attempted to analyze the situation and figure out what to do with it for the following fall term. The "Acting Principal" mentioned, in one of our discussions, that he had about 150 16-year- olds in the 6th and 7th grades and that they had been retained again. I could not believe it. He couldn't either, but assured me it was true. No one at the district office had been aware of this. There was no way for them to be aware of it since the data base did not exist and many principals believed that even bringing such problems up was a sign of weakness.
We moved the overage students to the high school and set up a special program for them. The middle school is functioning much better this year and the remaining students have reasonable learning opportunities (by Mobile standards).
Pursuing this concern, I discovered that the problem was fairly widespread throughout the district, but no one was aware of it because there was no early warning system in place to allow the detection of such phenomena before they reached crisis proportions. Such systems have been commonplace in school districts for at least 20 years.
In Gainesville, student achievement data were routinely reviewed by a variety of people. Principals and teachers looked at them at the end of each marking period and made program adjustments as needed. The district staff reviewed them with principals and committees of teachers whenever systemwide phenomena were apparent. Everyone engaged in the enterprise wanted to know if, when, and why things were not working as they were intended to work. Then we set about making the necessary adjustments. Such an approach was impossible in Mobile, and neither the Board nor the "leadership" in the community were about to provide the tools required to do it.
I shall never forget a conversation with Walter Hovell (President of Mobile Gas and Chairman of Forward Mobile) about the technological needs of the school system. I threw out a figure of about $2 million to get the administrative side of it going at anything resembling adequacy. He assured me that it could be done for much less because his company had 70,000 or so customers and his system had only cost about $500,000. I wanted to grab him by the throat and yell: "Listen to me, damnit! We are not talking about a simple billing system here. We are talking about a data base you cannot even imagine, the points of entry of which are spread across 94 different locations." But, I didn't. Later, I was told by several vendors that his was the most outdated and inefficient system along the Gulf Coast. But, for Hovell and others, the school system couldn't be that complicated.
In a subsequent conversation, School Board President Jeanne Andrews told me that it couldn't be as complicated as I was making it sound because her husband had a computer at home and it didn't cost that much!
The absence of a system to collect and maintain data is serious and frustrating, but it is not as maddening as the inability to communicate with other members in the organization on a day to day basis. If there is no technology network, there is (obviously) no electronic mail. Most schools have only one or two telephone lines and getting in touch with principals can be quite a challenge. If non-scheduled meetings need to be called for any reason, an army of secretaries manning phones is required. And, even then, many do not get the message. This, of course, frequently results in people being inadvertently left out of the decision making loop at critical points in time. Their feelings are hurt, their input is missed, and the already rampant paranoia within the organization festers.
What can be, and often is, worse is that, once contact with a school is made, principals drop everything at a moment's notice to rush off to some hastily called "emergency" meeting at Barton. Teachers and parents are sometimes left standing in the halls thinking they were about to meet with the principal on some issue of importance to them.
In Gainesville (and in other districts), when a meeting needed to be called or information gathered, one secretary typed the proposal and the agenda into a terminal, hit one key, and it went out to every site simultaneously. The receiving parties confirmed receipt and often sent back suggestions for better times to hold the meeting or additions to the agenda. Further, the entire district calendar was available on the terminal for anyone to look at and anticipate conflicts before making the initial suggestion.
The philosophy in Mobile is that people and their time are not very valuable. This is the exact opposite of the philosophy that should exist in a school district. People, their time and energy, are the most important variables in the school equation. Not attending to these variables, and not being considerate of them, sends a subtle message to every employee, parent and student. It is the wrong message to send.
The Board had no policies. More precisely, it had a policy manual but the vast majority of the policies in it had not been updated since 1974 and most were worse than worthless. Employees trying to use them to gain guidance would have been steered in the wrong directions given intervening court decisions, changes in state and federal laws, rules and regulations.
I asked Connie Aune, our staff attorney, to lead an effort to update the policy manual. We managed to get the Board to adopt a policy on "policy adoption" that spelled out the procedure to be used in the revision process and future adoptions. The procedure called for two "readings" of a proposed policy (or change) by the Board, separated by a public hearing on the matter. It also created a "Policy Advisory Committee" composed of employees, parents and other lay citizens. The first "reading" by the Board was to announce its intent to adopt a policy and to schedule the public hearing. After the hearing, and after receipt of the Policy Advisory Committee review, The Board could adopt the proposed policy, with any changes it wanted to make. The purpose of the procedure was to assure as much and as diverse input as possible.
The first few policies went through the process efficiently and everyone seemed to be satisfied with the progress being made. When we got to the revision of the grievance policy, Bill Hanebuth of the Mobile County Education Associatiom (MCEA) had a fit. The Advisory Committee (which contained union representatives) agreed with our proposed revisions which simplified the process and made it possible to resolve most employee concerns expeditiously, and without Hanebuth's involvement. Apparently, he perceived this as a threat to his job security.
Hanebuth convinced School Board President Jeanne Andrews that another step was needed in the adoption process (where he could have a final word). After everyone had input, a Board committee needed to review everything before bringing it to the Board for final adoption. Andrews put this step in place by fiat. And once this step was inserted, the revision process all but came to a halt. When I left the district, dozens and dozens of policies (including the Grievance Policy) were still tied up in the Board committee. Although the situation was frustrating for everyone, I felt particularly sorry for Aune and her secretary, Betty Hand, who had worked so hard drafting the recommended revisions, scheduling the necessary committee meetings and hearings, revising the drafts, etc. The Board was refusing to do that which only the Board could do, and the employees (and the community) were left high and dry.
The district operates a minimal summer school. Only those students who can afford to pay tuition and whose parents can provide transportation attend -- and then only at the middle and high school levels. A few Chapter 1 elementary schools operate summer programs, but they serve very few children. All of the elementary and middle school principals are on 10-month contracts, as well as the associated clerical and custodial personnel. The schools are literally closed during the summer months. This practice not only precludes remediation programs for children in need of them and assures that records of transfer students will not be current when the fall session begins, but it also guarantees that everything in the schools will mildew during June, July and August of each year.
We estimated that 30-40 percent of the elementary aged students needed summer remediation in the basic subjects. Failure to provide these opportunities virtually guaranteed the substantial population of overaged youngsters in the upper grades and assured that learning opportunities for all children would be diminished as teachers were forced to cope with ever expanding achievement differentials in their classrooms. But we paid football coaches $6,000 supplements.
Florida requires children who have fallen behind to attend summer sessions. In Gainesville, all of the schools are open during the summer months and the buses run. Virtually every teacher who wants summer employment has it, either in the schools or at the district level working on curriculum development projects. Beyond the remedial summer programs, many districts offer "developmental" programs for those children who want courses that would not be available to them during the regular term. We operated a Performing Arts Summer School (PASS) and several math and science institutes/camps for fees, and the enrollments grew every year.
In Mobile, there is little or no staff development conducted by the district other than those efforts funded through Chapter 1 or some other federal program. Occasionally, individual principals will use locally generated money to send teachers to a conference or training program. The University of South Alabama is home to the Southern Educational Region In-service Consortium (SERIC). The State funds the University and it provides some developmental opportunities for teachers throughout southern Alabama and Mississippi. I found it fascinating that the "Talents Unlimited" program was developed in Mobile and operated as a self-supporting arm of the school system to train teachers all over the country, but we could not afford to train our own personnel in the techniques.
The summer months could and should be used to provide intensive experiences for all varieties of teachers. Most districts do this. In Mobile, the funds were never available and these opportunities to provide the most important resource in the sytsem were lost each year. The few in-service opportunities that did exist were handed out as "rewards" to certain teachers who had incurred the favor of some administrator during the year. That the general development of all personnel in the system might benefit everyone (especially the students) was another alien concept in Mobile. People just were not considered to be very important. They were interchangeable parts that did not need development. Whenever one burned out or became unsatisfactory enough to warrant some type of corrective action, you simply traded it in on another model. After all, why spend any money on the people in the public schools? If they need training, let them pay for it themselves. They should be grateful that they even have jobs. What an enlightened approach!
There is no such thing as a Risk Manager or Safety Officer in the Mobile School System. Hardly a week goes by that the district is not sued for some stupid accident that should never have occurred. And for every suit that is filed, there are a dozen more that could have been. Months and months of employee productivity are lost each year due to on-the-job injuries that easily could have been avoided with appropriate instruction and training.
The Maintenance Department of the Mobile County Schools consisted of 112 people when I came (and left). By way of contrast, in Gainesville we had 100 men to take care of less than one third the number of buildings and those buildings were in reasonably good condition. The conditions that exist in Mobile are not the result of lazy or incompetent workers. It is humanly impossible for the limited number of crews to take care of the demand.
This is exacerbated by the fact that there is precious little organization behind the crews that do exist. Months of work requests back up each year. There are no professional supervisors in the department. Foremen have been assigned "acting" supervisory roles (without concomitant pay increases, I might add) and have received no training in the non-existant staff development program.
Teachers must purchase their own paint and come in before school starts (on their own time) to paint their classrooms. Sometimes they enlist the volunteer help of parents or spouses. It is not difficult to understand the ill feelings that occur whenever a teacher must be moved after school begins.
Parent volunteers routinely do electrical and plumbing work at the schools without the benefit of final inspections. In many cases the system does not even know that the work has been done. The liability exposure is awesome to contemplate.
These and other "savage inequalities" exist, and they are perpetuated and compounded by the attitudes that permeate the community. The public schools are charities, and those who work in them are expected to adopt the beggar mentality. Most have.
But school people are proud by nature. There are no more competitive members of the species than teachers and principals. They want and need to be appreciated for their efforts. The really good ones believe they can overcome any obstacle. And so they make do with next to nothing and find small, relatively insignificant things to celebrate, and delude themselves into believing that these small successes are what it is all about. It is not.
How could this be, one might ask? Surely they see the discrepancies between the conditions their children are placed in and those of others. But they do not see them because they are never allowed to see. And therein lies the maddening hypocrisy of it all.
I remember a phone call I received shortly after my arrival in Mobile. It was from a school board member in another state. Mobile had belonged to an organization called The National Federation of Urban and Suburban School Districts (NFUSSD). The organization is made up of 25-30 large school districts across the country and was established to enable Board members and Superintendents to meet together twice a year to share ideas and discuss policy alternatives. Each member district took a turn at hosting the conference and, when a district was the host, it showcased its "exemplary" programs for the others.
My former district had been a member of the organization and I had served as President immediately prior to coming to Mobile. My caller related an experience several years before, when Mobile had been the host. She told of the embarrassment felt by the conferees for Mobile. The Mobilians had arranged school tours (as was the custom of the group) and had toured the conferees throughout the community during their stay. They had been transported on dilapidated buses to dilapidated schools with 30-35 students per class and no technology. The programs that were being "showcased" had been abandoned long ago by most of the districts represented. And the Mobilians were proud of all of this! She said: "We were embarrassed for them because they did not know enough to be embarrassed by what they were showing us. We went on the visitations, came back and socialized with each other. We could not talk about programs because it would have been that much more embarrassing. They were delightful people, and we had a wonderful social time, but it was so sad. I don't envy you."
Pride runs especially deep in the southern psyche. Wayne Flynt has chronicled this in his book Poor But Proud. Every human being needs something of which he/she can be proud of. We all understand this intuitively. Southerners may have a greater need than most. Perhaps this is the legacy of our impoverished history, as Flynt suggests. We have not enjoyed the luxury of having the usual things to be proud of, and we celebrate small things because we have a need to celebrate something. There is nothing wrong with this so long as it is kept in perspective.
But others become embarrassed for us when they perceive that our pride is unfounded or misplaced. If and when they confront us with their observations, they are "cocky" and, if they persist, they are "arrogant". This is how conflicts begin. They have no place in professional conferences, particularly when you are a guest. One tends to retreat in quiet pity.
I had not attended the Mobile conference, but I comprehended her remarks at a depth she might never understand. I am Southern, she is not.
The tragedy is that Mobile did not know any better. All but a very few had been numbed into lowered expectations of their community, their children and themselves. They had reached a point where they could no longer envision excellence. I was, and continue to be, reminded of "Compared To What", a song written by Les McCann some 20 years before. The song was written, primarily, for a Black audience, but it has universal application. We are told how good things are and how we should appreciate them: Compared To What?
There is incredible pride in many of the Mobile schools, not all of it unjustified I might add. The principals, considered as a group, are the best entrepreneurs I have ever seen. They are absolutely ingenious at finding new and creative ways to raise money to purchase needed supplies and equipment for their schools. It never occurs to anyone to ask if this is a wise, prudent, and effective use of their and their teachers' time. It is an accepted way of life. I estimated that as much as 20 percent of the already short school year was eaten up in these activities.
Both the Principals and their PTAs are very proud of their accomplishments. Although the teachers resent being bullied into afternoon, evening and weekend "volunteer" jobs to raise the needed money, they could not survive without the supplies and equipment the fundraisers finance. Many teachers still must subsidize the system from their own pockets even with the Herculean, albeit ultimately inadequate, efforts of the parent groups. It never occurs to anyone to demand that the community adequately fund the schools. It never occurs to anyone that innocent children have a right to an adequate educational opportunity at public expense. Or, if it does occur to them, there is no one to lead the parade.
And the fundraisers exacerbate the inequities. Some schools simply cannot raise the amounts that others do. They serve populations that do not have even the meager means that exist in other parts of the community. A hot dog can be sold at one school for $2 but, at another, for only $1. The hot dog costs the same to produce at both sites. The system guarantees that the rich will get richer and the poor, poorer. But the "rich", in this case, are to be compared to what?
I have spent most of my adult life studying and trying to improve organizations. I have come to understand that organizations, like societies, have distinct cultures. Some are healthy, others are sick. I tend to think about organizations and their underlying cultures in terms of the observed behaviors of their members.
School systems, and all other human organizations, are about values - and only about values. Even a casual study of them can enable one to catch sight of the guiding belief systems: What is believed about people? About children? About the mission? Does the organization value other people, their unique talents, and the contributions they can make, or are they interchangeable parts who enjoy temporary security at the whims of the directors? Does it value individual learning, development and excellence, or only getting the "job" done as quickly and cheaply as possible? Does it believe that everyone wants to excel at what they are doing, or that they have to be forced to be productive? Is the assumption that people want to make things "better" rather than "worse"? Does the organization consciously look for the potential in people rather than their weaknesses? Is the organization based on integrity, honor and courage, or some other set of values? Is the environment relatively anxiety free, or obsessed with fear and insecurity? Does the organization strive to promote good will and mutual support among team members, or is it based on rivalry and jealousy? Are people encouraged to enjoy their work and have fun at it, or is it simple drudgery? Is every person capable of learning? Etc.
Whether explicit or implicit, employees quickly grasp the underlying value system of the organization by the ways they are treated. If the "official" value system is explicit and the real rules of the organization are inconsistent with it, the employees soon recognize the hypocrisy, and either comply with it or leave. If the values are implicit, it takes a little longer to ferret them out, but the results are the same. Employees either come to embrace them enthusiastically (and consider themselves lucky to have stumbled into the job), acquiesce to them, or leave. Unfortunately, when the value system is found to be intolerable, the more competent and assertive individuals are usually the ones who seek another environment - leaving behind trapped, mostly passive people of marginal competence.
Healthy organizations have a synergy capable of magnificent achievements. In the public sector, those achievements produce public good. Sick organizations infect everything they come into contact with and, in the public sector, they never die. When dealing with a "sick" one, the trick is to treat it into a healthy state, much as a physician would treat a patient, before the infection spreads.
Actually, something much worse than simple inefficiencies existed at Barton. A spiritual malignancy had taken hold as the result of years of unwarranted irrational attacks by enemies of the public schools. Many of the people at Barton had developed a "siege mentality" that generated behaviors that were, at once, defensive, antagonistic, dysfunctional and self-destructive. We had a self-fulfilling prophecy: as they were attacked, they behaved exactly as they were predicted to behave, and those behaviors induced animosities that confirmed the predictions and led to subsequent attacks. A vicious cycle!
The prevailing philosophy was one of "Cover your a** and find someone to blame whenever a serious screwup occurs." It was pathological, but understandable after a while in the environment. I had never seen the likes of it.
At some point, I was forced to ask myself: Are there other Mobiles? Is this an isolated case or do similar conditions exist in other school systems? If there are many more like Mobile, perhaps it is best that the public schools be dismantled, as some have argued.
But, that thought passes quickly because a total dismantlement would be the institutional equivalent of a nuclear attack. There would be nothing left, and there is nothing to replace the schools. What would be done with the 42 million children in America for whom the public schools provide an important custodial function? Even the most ardent critics seem to understand this reality.
But there are others. And they suffer from the same combination of prolonged apathetic neglect by the many coupled with spurts of misguided zealous tinkering by the powerful few that produced the situation in Mobile. You cannot change the culture of an institution overnight any more than you can change the culture of a nation overnight. There are no quick fixes; no magic bullets. To effect such changes, one must put into place the necessary prerequisite conditions and allow the institution time to re-establish equilibrium.
Continuing the patient analogy, the physician must stop the bleeding, administer appropriate medications to kill the infection, and provide sufficient nourishment and rest over time to allow recovery to occur. Hearin, Howard Bronson (the current publisher of the Press-Register), the Legislative Delegation, and many in the business community wanted to put a band aide on a hemorrhage or prescribe an aspirin for a brain tumor and declare the patient "cured."
I spent 14 months trying to get people to trust and appreciate each other, play on the same team, understand that they were there to help others, take a few risks, have hope, develop the people around them, and try to improve schooling for children. I believe that significant progress had been made toward those objectives. I also believe that the progress was reversed in one action by a majority of the Board at the insistence of a newspaper publisher and a couple of State legislators.
When Paul Sousa assumed the role of "Acting Superintendent," his first pronouncement was that the organization was "going back to October, 1991," before the changes. The traditional value system was reinstalled and reinforced with one move.
[The next series: The power brokers and the influence they wield on public education in Mobile, and the Fourth Estate -- the media -- and the role they play in influencing public perception of public education.]
-- June 1, 1993