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August 10, 1993

Getting to Know the In-Laws

by Dr. Doug Magann

[Editor's note: This is the fifth of a series on the Mobile County Public School System written by former school superintendent Dr. Doug Magann.]

When a marriage occurs, each spouse joins a new family, so to speak. No matter how much you had been told about future in-laws, there are always a few surprises. The school system staff might be likened to the in-laws in this analogy. They have diverse backgrounds and personalities, and came to be "family members" by many different paths. As in other families, a newcomer tends to form stronger relationships with some more than others, and for various reasons. Some beat a path to your door the first few days after the honeymoon, others delay their visits out of courtesy or because they want to size up the newcomer before deciding how to make the approach.

One of the curiosities about coming into a new school system as superintendent is the sequence of initial visitations from various staff members. Some line up at the door and badger secretaries for an appointment before you have even found your parking place or feel comfortable with the route home at day's end. Others are hardly visible for weeks after your arrival.

My experience has been that the former group is made up, generally, of the more insecure staff. They want to make sure that you know of and appreciate "their" specific program(s) and their awesome problems, whatever they might be. They have little or no understanding of either the school enterprise, as a whole, or the role of the superintendent in it. To them, the school system revolves totally around their specific program(s), and they want to assure themselves that the new superintendent shares their fervor and that they have his/her support.

While there were many such visits during August, 1991, some of the more memorable ones were made by one of the Assistant Superintendents. During the summer, former Superintendent Billy Salter had suggested that the Board consider reassigning some staff to schools for the next year as they wrestled with the budgetary problems. This Assistant Superintendent was one of the people under consideration, and her insecurity was both obvious and understandable.

She had been with the system as an Assistant Superintendent for a number of years and had little or absolutely no school-based administrative experience. I chastised Salter for even considering her for a principalship. He thought that it would be "good for her to learn something about schools;" and it would have been, but not at the expense of some innocent faculty and student body.

I was never exactly sure what her responsibilities (or the responsibilities of other personnel for that matter) had been under the old order. Two things became apparent during those first two weeks: first, she believed that the system revolved around the SECME (Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering) program and, second, I could find very few people in the organization, except the teachers involved in the SECME program, that could stand to work with her for long periods of time.

The SECME program is a good one and I have been involved with it since its inception in the early 1970s. Further, the Mobile program is, without argument, recognized as one of the best in the country, and this lady deserves much of the credit. But it is one relatively small part of the overall program in the school system.

These developments, considered in isolation of other events, would hardly merit space in this story. But they are indicative of an organizational phenomenon that is central to understanding the conditions leading up to October 5, 1992: insecure people can do enormous incidental damage both inside and outside any public organization.

The SECME consortia include school systems, the engineering communities, and universities. The program was designed and operates with the active assistance of the professional engineering community. It is a model that I wish other professional groups would emulate. SECME advisory councils work regularly with school personnel to provide specialized learning opportunities for minority children with identified aptitudes for engineering related professions.

The Assistant Superintendent met routinely with representatives of these groups and, given her insecurities, put knives in the backs of me and others on a regular basis. Snide little comments were reported to me on numerous occasions. If I were unable to make one of her meetings for any reason, usually something would be said to the effect that "I guess we're just not that important to the Superintendent" rather than "The Superintendent is meeting with the banking syndicate in an effort to prevent closing the schools next week."

Comments of this nature establish a mindset in those to whom they are made, and such mindsets become the filters through which all future information about a person is interpreted. In this case, the impression was given that the Superintendent did not appreciate either the program or the efforts of the engineers who were volunteering their time and the companies who were sponsoring them. It was ironic that the in-coming President of the Chamber of Commerce was an engineer.

I remember that she wanted to purchase some computers for the SECME teachers early in the fall of 1991. I told her that we were attempting to establish a "technology template" for all of the schools and that her request would be included. She was not satisfied with that response, and I was later told that she was saying to others that I was not interested in the instructional program and that I only wanted to purchase computers for Barton Academy. She openly resented the two technical assistants who were working with us to design the overall system and the "templates," and I am convinced that her comments in the community and to School Board President Jeanne Andrews aided and abetted those who wanted the whole effort to fail. I doubt that she even realized the damage that her unbridled tongue was doing.

She, of course, was not the only example of this phenomenon. Bob Campbell, the Board attorney, did something which I learned of only after the Board took its action to suspend me. Shortly after I came in August, 1991, Campbell called me one morning and said that he had been in court earlier in the day and that one of the judges had asked him (Campbell) to set up a meeting with me. I asked what the meeting was about and he told me that "they want to tell you how to run the school system just like everybody else." Campbell was busy at the time, and he knew that I was swamped. During the conversation, he allowed as how he really did not have time for this sort of thing at that point, and that he could tell the judges that we would try to arrange a meeting at a later date. I concurred, and we left it that he would schedule a meeting.

Campbell never got back to me and, quite frankly, I forgot about it in the rush of events that followed. I was informed much later that I had insulted the local judiciary and that they, too, considered me "arrogant." This, apparently, was due to the way Campbell had begged off with the judges months before. He was reported to have told them that I said that I "didn't have time to meet with them and that they should try again later." They developed a mindset that I was totally unaware of, and one that was certainly not my intention to create. I do not know whether Campbell meant to do that, but he had to know about it after the fact and he apparently did nothing to correct the impression.

There were numerous other people like the Assistant Superintendent who dropped by to promote their "special" programs. I eventually concluded that the entire school system was nothing more than a conglomeration of specialized, uncoordinated components, and that there was no PROGRAM for students in Mobile. Apparently, every specialized initiative that had come along in the past decade had been appended to whatever existed at the time. The instructional "program" was a potpourri of relatively unrelated fragments.

The situation was made worse by the fact that the staff had not been meeting with each other on a regular basis. A school system is more than a simple sum of its parts. When it is working right, it reflects a synergy that transcends the simple sum. When it is not working right, the individual parts have enormous capacities for wreaking havoc on each other.

For instance, if the Personnel Department does not understand the "finer points" of a particular aspect of the instructional program, the wrong types of people may be recruited and staffed into the program. If and when this occurs, that part fails. And when a new program (or program modification) is under consideration, invariably there are facility implications. If the people responsible for the facilities are left out of the discussions something bad always occurs, and the program usually fails. There are literally hundreds of examples that could be cited to illustrate this phenomenon (and most of them existed in the school system).

When I began to pull the senior staff together on a regular basis, in what I called a Cabinet meeting, several things became apparent. There were too many senior administrators, the assignment of responsibilities was fragmented and had no logical pattern, and the level of mutual distrust among members of the group was incredible. There were no rules, no systems, no plans and no understanding about how the thing should work. It took eight months of constant effort to make a reasonable dent in this situation, and then it was all but scuttled when three Board members ordered the termination of the two technical assistants who were working with us to develop the necessary systems to support a rational, coordinated administration.

There are five major function areas in every school system: (1) personnel, (2) curriculum and instruction, (3) student support services, (4) financial services, and (5) facilities/transportation. Other important functions (research, planning and evaluation, community relations and public information, legal services, and the management information systems, etc.) are supportive to these five major divisions.

Of the major function areas, clearly direct services to students (curriculum and instruction and student support services) are central to the mission of the school system. Everything else exists to support these functions. This was a new and strange concept for my teammates.

In the past (and probably in the future), the system had been "driven" by the finance and personnel divisions, with the facilities division making negative contributions from time to time. The instructional program and special services were being "wagged" routinely by these various tails. Whenever changes that would positively affect teachers and students were considered, someone usually introduced a half dozen reasons why they could not be made (no money, no space, would necessitate re-routing some buses or changing some personnel assignments, etc.), rather than working together to find a way to do it. Such attitudes reflect a confused orientation, or belief system, about the mission of the institution.

Sometime in October, 1991, I re-defined the organizational pattern of the school system to establish the centrality of the Instructional and Student Support Services Divisions. Dr. Anna Clausen and Mr. Jimmy Knight were assigned general administrative responsibilities for the two divisions, and everyone else (including the Superintendent) was to work in tandem with the people in these divisions. Paul Sousa was to lead the newly created Facilities and Transportation Division because these areas were in shambles and needed some immediate attention. Charles Ratcliffe would continue to head up the Finance, Procurement, Budgeting and Accounting Division. And Otis Brunson would continue to administer the Personnel function, with some significant changes in past protocols. Several others who carried the titles of Assistant/Associate Superintendent, etc. were reassigned responsibilities under one of the five major areas.

As with any reorganization, there were mixed feelings depending on the perception of one's status before and after. We had talked about these changes and the rationale behind them for several weeks. Most, if not all, had bought into the rationale, but that was before individual assignments had been finalized. When the reorganization was announced and I reviewed it with the principals, other administrators and staff, interesting reactions occurred.

I think most were pleased and could see where we were trying to go. Generally speaking, principals put instruction first, or at least they try to put it first. The reorganization validated and sanctioned their natural instincts. Some were relieved and some concerned about the new reporting/evaluation arrangements. All of the principals would be evaluated by Clausen and Knight, with appropriate input from the other Division heads. Sousa had evaluated some of the principals the year before I came as part of a state pilot project, but he had little or nothing to do with the instructional program. That arrangement, of course, sent an entirely different message to the principals, i.e., the effectiveness of your school's instructional program may or may not be important in your evaluation. I wanted to change the message.

Most of the principals expressed contentment with the new order, but a few had experienced conflicts with either Clausen and/or Knight in the past and were less enthusiastic about the change. Some of Sousa's enemies were delighted and teased him about being "defrocked" and relegated to handling the facilities- maintenance-transportation functions for the school system.

Ironically, I had asked Sousa to take the assignment because it was absolutely essential that we get the facilities problems straightened out. Sousa is decisive. He sometimes goes off like a loose cannon, but he will make a decision. And both the Renovations and Maintenance Departments had been adrift for many months. I heard more complaints about these two areas during the first nine weeks of my tenure than all of the others put together, and for good reasons. Sousa and I discussed the necessary changes that we felt needed to be made immediately, and he made them. The improvements were visible to everyone.

But Sousa is part of the "good ole boy" network and ascended to his current central office position after serving years as Principal of Murphy High School, the registered "flagship" of the district. Although he does not abuse it as flagrantly as some others, he does have a preference for certain former coaches, particularly if they worked at Murphy. In fact, the "Murphy Mafia" and "special treatment for Murphy" are frequent topics of conversation whenever two or more district employees strike up a conversation. Both the labels and the past behavior of certain people formally associated with Murphy, including Sousa, continue to cause morale problems throughout the system.

After the first few weeks, Sousa was out of the "limelight" and had to be content with simply doing a very important, never-ending job in a quiet and professional manner. This is not his style. As the instructional and student services programs began to fill the center stage, Sousa became somewhat disenchanted with his new role. He began to use his old title, "Executive to the Superintendent," to throw some unwarranted and undesirable weight around the organization. I was both amused and a little disappointed by this sophomoric behavior, but I let it go until some of the principals began to complain about getting mixed signals from various Cabinet members. Since they were to take their signals from Clausen, Knight and me, we had to clarify the lines again in the early spring of 1992.

Charles Ratcliffe had been employed by the system 5 or 6 years prior to my arrival. He was recruited from the private sector at the insistence of the business community. He had retired from International Paper after serving many years as comptroller, both at the plant and corporate levels. Ratcliffe is a competent financial officer, an outstanding cash flow manager, and a very honorable man.

But philosophies and procedures differ significantly between the public and private sectors and Ratcliffe had virtually no experience with the public sector before joining the school system. Unfortunately, no one inside the system had much experience either. This experience void was the result of several factors. The most significant ones were a short sighted, but longstanding, policy of not providing opportunities for personnel to "keep up" with changes in their respective fields, and of not providing adequate numbers of personnel in key areas to permit "cross training." These two factors, taken together, produced the experience void as normal attrition occurred through retirements, deaths, etc.

Ratcliffe inherited this situation along with a substantial debt as a result of previous prorations, fines, and criminal activities of former school officials. His charge was to "straighten out the mess" and to get the system back on sound financial footing. To his credit, he was well along in the accomplishment of the task when the 1990-91 and 1991-92 prorations occurred. However, some of the measures he took to make progress toward the objective later produced negative side effects that neither he, nor anyone else apparently, had anticipated. Some of these effects could not have been anticipated because they were products of earlier decisions coupled with later court decrees, legislative changes, etc.

Ratcliffe is an extraordinary cash flow manager. He had been able to keep the District afloat financially by using macro estimates of annual expenditures and balancing them against revised revenue estimates and expenditure reports throughout the year. From a practical standpoint, this approach avoided a collapse because between 85 and 90 percent of District expenditures were in personnel and were fairly stable from month to month. However, the methodology required that he and his subordinates keep a death grip on every dollar that came into the school system, and led to the necessity of deferring payment of non-personnel costs, i.e., vendors, for as much as 120-150 days. This, in turn, led to bad credit ratings and higher prices from the remaining suppliers. It also meant that no one in the system had a "budget."

During the 1990-91 school year, his system of control was virtually destroyed when the Board, in response to various political pressures in the system, hired 100 teachers that were not "budgeted." The situation was exacerbated beyond anyone's ability to control it when, later the same year, the Governor announced a 6 percent proration. These two developments, taken together, produced an $8 million overrun in the 1990-91 budget. The system responded by borrowing an additional $6 million from the banking syndicate to go with the $2 million already outstanding.

I wanted the budget decentralized to the various cost centers in the district, i.e., the schools and countywide departments, so that we could establish some semblance of accountability for the various administrators. At first, Ratcliffe did not embrace this concept, but he warmed to it as the year progressed. I came to understand his hesitancy soon after we agreed to move forward. There was no budget to decentralize! There had never been a budget that anyone could remember! There were no data from which historical expenditure patterns could be drawn, there was no technology system in place to analyze current activities at the cost centers, and there were not enough people on board to do it manually. After I came to understand these realities, we revised our time line for the project.

Ratcliffe and his staff worked very hard to produce the cost center budgets. Our revised target date had been September, 1992. We missed it, but he was within several days of giving me the first draft when the Board took its action on October 5th to suspend me. Apparently, no one has asked to see it since because it has never surfaced. A decentralized, cost center budget requires the ability to plan ahead. The funds are allocated to various managers based on availability and identified needs, and they manage from that point. All of the "slush funds" disappear, and people cannot have kneejerk reactions to requests for additional funds. There are no more "Godfathers" and no more favoritism. Such a system would be totally out of character for both Sousa and the Board majority.

In August, 1991, Otis Brunson was the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources (Personnel), a position he had occupied for several years. The staffing problems facing the system at that point in time were unbelievable. Decisions had been postponed by the Board for so long that the time lines associated with the Alabama tenure laws had either expired or were about to expire, and schools were to open in less than 30 calendar days. Vacancies existed in virtually every school and our applicants were taking jobs in other districts as fast as they were offered.

Brunson and his team had responsibility for finding applicants, processing credentials, setting up interviews, placing people on the payroll, sending out the required written notices, filing reports, and all of the hundreds of other activities associated with the personnel function in a large company. And his division was short four critical positions that had been frozen during the budget deliberations.

I had never seen a personnel department in such disarray and people working under such stress. My first impression was that they (Brunson and his staff) were victims of Board indecision and procrastination but, as time passed, I began to see that Brunson, himself, caused many of the problems. He sees himself as an executive and does not like to engage in the routine, and often mundane, necessary personnel work. He prefers to delegate virtually everything (except meetings), but usually fails to give adequate instructions to those who are attempting to carry out his orders. This, of course, results in many mistakes and the re-doing of many simple tasks.

Brunson has an abnormal need to be liked and to be seen as a powerful, important figure in the administration. He frequently attempts to ingratiate himself with various people by doing them "favors." This is a dangerous practice in any organization governed by policies and rules, but it is particularly dangerous where personnel are concerned because, ultimately, there are no secrets. As various incidents of his "favoritism" came to my attention, I told him that I wanted the Personnel Department "run by the book"; there would be no more "favors." But Brunson is very creative when it comes to finding gaps in policies and instructions. While he will adhere to the letter of the law, he will flagrantly violate the spirit whenever it serves his purposes. After repeated experiences with his behaviors, I found that I could not trust his judgement -- which is to say that I could not trust him.

The Personnel Department of the Mobile School System is the worst I have ever seen and that sad fact is, primarily, a result of its leadership. There are good people, many of them clerks, who try to keep things going in some reasonable and responsible fashion, but the philosophy that prevails is basically an unhealthy one. Brunson sees himself as The Godfather dispensing favors rather than someone responsible for assuring that rational rules are followed efficiently and all personnel are treated like valued human beings. Whenever things go awry, scapegoats are found and excuses made rather than making procedural corrections to make certain that the same mistakes will not occur again. Foul-ups affecting individual employees are legendary and legion in number. Most could have been avoided with any management at all.

I remember requiring Brunson, Ratcliffe, Clausen and Knight to reconcile the personnel allocations with the payrolls in the late summer of '92. All but Brunson recognized the importance of the undertaking and willingly made the effort (which was considerable). We discovered that people had been placed on the wrong payrolls (by the Personnel Department), that some (favored) schools had been considerably overstaffed the previous year, that vacancies were still unfilled, etc. The mess was incredible. I assigned the responsibility for teacher allocations to Clausen and Knight, and threatened to have them shot if they exceeded the budget. Brunson pouted for weeks, and Bill Hanebuth, executive director of the Mobile County Education Association (MCEA), was upset about the change because he no longer had access to the Personnel Godfather. The 1992-93 budget was balanced when schools opened in September and every school was on a level playing field. That, of course, was completely reversed on October 5th when the old ways of doing things were re-installed.

Billy Salter had been Superintendent for five years when I came to Mobile. He, too, had come up through the ranks and had served as Principal of Vigor High School for a number of years before coming to Barton Academy as an Assistant Superintendent. He had been at Barton less than a year when he was catapulted into the Superintendency after the finalist withdrew at the last moment.

Salter is a decent man, but he had neither training nor experience for system-level work, and he was completely unprepared for the politics of the "central office." Between staff and Board members stabbing him in the back and the Chamber of Commerce saying he was not "polished" enough to present the proper image of the city, he never had a chance.

The majority of the Board wanted to fire Salter when I was employed. There were several problems with that approach. First, he had not been evaluated in five years. (In fact, no one in the central office had been evaluated in five years and, when I required evaluations of everyone during the 1991-92 year, some were not pleased with the results and promptly joined the dissident faction on the Board, i.e., Jeanne Andrews and "Sugar" Warren. It was interesting to watch who suddenly became active in Andrews' campaign.) There simply were no grounds to dismiss Salter, except that they did not like him. Second, he was going to fight them and I did not blame him. Third, I refused to have his blood on my hands as I came in the door, especially since I thought he had gotten a raw deal.

There were good reasons to keep Salter on board also. No one who has given their entire adult life to an institution should be publically disgraced and "drummed out of the corps" one year away from retirement. Such actions send messages to the remaining employees that should not be sent. Further, he was a valuable resource as far as I was concerned. He knew where most of the snakes were. Finally, I was going to need someone who could handle the day-to-day operations until I became acclimated to the new situation.

The Board agreed not to push the issue. I met with Salter late one afternoon at a local restaurant before I actually took office and we discussed how we might work together over the next year or so. The upshot of that meeting was that he became the Deputy Superintendent.

The arrangement did not work as well as I had hoped it would. Salter had lost the respect of the staff by that point, and they generally refused to go to him for guidance. Worse, when they did go, he often gave them the standard Mobile response -- an order to do this or that, rather than trying to help them work out whatever problem they were dealing with. I am not being critical of Salter. His responses were right in tune with the way he had been "taught" to respond by the system. Unfortunately, the system was perpetuating all of the wrong values and their accompanying behaviors. Instead of encouraging people to be cooperative, understanding and mutually supportive, it taught people to get everything done in as little time as possible, regardless of quality; that asking for assistance was a sign of weakness; and that it was the duty of every administrator to give orders as frequently and to as many people as possible!

Salter is a quiet, fairly religious person who is not prone to either profanity or the running down of others, as a rule. He knew that he had been done in by members of his own staff and that the place was in pretty bad shape. He also knew that he had given it his best shot and that some progress had been made during his administration. He was right. He had done some really good things that I could see.

I remember riding with him one afternoon on the way to a meeting at Pillans Middle School. I was expressing my frustrations with some of the staff and Board when he turned to me and asked: "Have you ever seen such a **** up bunch of people in your life?" I almost drove off the road. It was so out of character for Salter that it was at once both humorous and tragic. He understood! And, that was our bond from that day forward.

(Next Article in the Series)

-- August 10, 1993

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