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LA Unified conducts massive reorganization of its middle management

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LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy is cutting down the district's eight local offices to five in order to make it more responsive at the classroom level.

Over the last four months, L.A. Unified has quietly embarked on a massive reorganization of its middle managers, requiring all administrators at its eight regional headquarters to reapply for their jobs if they want to stick around for the next school year.

The change is part of Superintendent John Deasy's effort to pare down the nation's second largest school district's bureaucracy as it is faces a looming $390 million shortfall, and also make the district more "nimble" in its response to schools' needs.

When the 2012 school year begins, there will be five local district offices that will be called "educational service centers": four regional headquarters and an additional local district office for schools that are considered the most innovative or non-traditional, and schools that are struggling. The reorganization will result in 30 fewer middle management positions and is expected to save the district $4 million, said Jaime Aquino, the LAUSD deputy superintendent of instruction.

Nearly 20 percent of the regional headquarters' managers will be from outside L.A. Unified, and another 14 percent will be internal candidates who weren't previously principals or local district managers, according to district documents. Another 31 percent will be promoted principals. Only two of the eight current local district superintendents will be returning.

"What that does is create a domino effect at schools," said Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. "So we have many, many schools where there are openings for principals and in some cases assistant principals, because of the changing positions...There is a lot of shifting, there is a lot of movement, and our principals don’t yet know to whom they will report."

The administrators' union has been very involved in the extensive new hiring process and was represented on the interview panel, Perez said. Under the new process, administrators were asked to analyze instruction, to examine data, and asked questions about video clips of teachers in the classroom, officials said. Aquino and Deasy personally interviewed prospective local superintendents during a second round of interviews.

Roberto Martinez, local District 5 superintendent, called the interview process rigorous. He went through two rounds over several hours.

"It definitely gave us an insight into the expectations for next year," Martinez said. "...Being interviewed personally by John Deasy and Jaime Aquino...it's very personal. It's critical when you select somebody for a leadership position that they get to be well known and the boss himself, Dr. Deasy, is able to dig deep into your weaknesses and strengths."

To date, roughly 98 percent of the positions have been filled, though interviews are ongoing, Aquino said. Aquino has been conducting many of the interviews and personally calls to offer positions to the new directors.

Aquino said the district is committed to leaving positions open until it finds the right candidate and will even start the school year without them if necessary, assigning more schools to current hires until all positions are filled. 

On Wednesday about 250 of these new and old middle managers will start a 12-day "summer leadership institute" run by the NYC Leadership Academy to learn about their new roles and responsibilities, Aquino said.

"In the past what's been done in the district, not just this district, but throughout the country, particularly with middle management, is to give them this position...and you let them sink or swim with no training," Aquino said. "We have to make sure we invest in our human capital, to be sure they're strong enough."

The $249,500 contract with the academy was narrowly approved by a 4 to 3 school board vote last Tuesday after questions were raised about the NYC Leadership Academy's effectiveness and whether it was specifically priced to prevent a competitive bid. Deasy sent board members a note the next day expressing concern about the tone of the comments during the meeting.

L.A. Unified has had a periodic history of decentralizing and then concentrating middle management of schools for various political and philosophical reasons. United Teachers Los Angeles has pushed in the past to cut spending on district bureaucracy rather than teaching positions.

Over the last two decades alone, the district has gone through management formats that included six local districts, 27 clusters (effectively creating small area districts), and 11 local districts, among other permutations. The district last dropped from 11 local districts to eight in 2004.

As part of the change, L.A. Unified has re-envisioned its middle management structure so that it will now have a trio or "leadership cabinet" at its head, Aquino said.

The regional superintendent will focus on instructional issues such as teaching, learning, student performance, and curriculum, and report to Aquino. There will also be two new positions: An administrator of operations, who will focus on facilities, budget issues, crisis response; and the director of parent and community engagement, who will work with school principals to develop a "parent involvement plan" and address more serious parent concerns, Aquino said.

Right now, local district superintendents have to focus on instruction, operations, as well as parents and community engagement, which "is almost impossible to do," Aquino said.

"Usually the operations issues, the crises, take precedent over teaching and learning, because they are crises that have to be addressed," Aquino said. "A great example of this, I use as a case study, is Miramonte. That was a crisis. It took a lot of the time of superintendent and the director. In those cases, rightfully so, it neglected the teaching and learning aspect. And we can't afford to do that anymore." 

The district has also created about a dozen additional "instructional directors," for a total of 62, who will work directly with school principals as they do now. The majority of the positions cut include coordinator positions, who previously focused on areas such as English language arts, math, English language development, Title I, and special education support, among others, Aquino said.

Former school board member David Tokofsky served from 1995 through 2007, when the district cut local offices from 11 to eight. He said the $4 million in savings was "less than budget dust" for a district with a roughly $6 billion operating budget.

Such changes are "almost invariably done for political reasons, but told to the public as a financial justification," Tokofsky said. "Unfortunately when it's financial or political, it has very little to do with instruction."

The majority of the $4 million savings are Title II, categorical funds, but Aquino said they will allow for about a dozen early education centers to remain open because of state matching funds, or possibly prevent more teacher layoffs.

Tokofsky said the district was letting go of administrators with years of LAUSD knowledge under their belts in exchange for newer, inexperienced managers.

"It's top down, it's very top down," Tokofsky said. "...Right now, people are demoralized, exhausted and spread too thin, and to get top-down change when you're demoralized, exhausted and spread too thin, is not going to build up responsibility or accountability."

Most of the current local district superintendents did not respond to requests for comment.

Dale Vigil, superintendent of local District 4, said he will retire Aug. 30. He applied for the position and went through the interview process, but was not selected. Aquino said Vigil was to receive a position at the central office, but chose to retire.

"They had a good process that allows everyone to have interviews, some people were selected, some were not, some are choosing to retire," Vigil said. "That’s pretty much what happens when there’s a change of this nature. I think it’s a good process."

George McKenna, superintendent of local District 7, said he chose not to reapply for his position and will retire June 30 after a total of 32 years with L.A. Unified in various positions.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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