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Monday, Nov. 24, 2008 | New faces cropped up in the central offices of San Diego Unified this summer as its board wrestled with $53 million in budget cuts.

Fourteen school improvement officers joined the team to replace six similar positions, and a new attorney and a new spokesman were tapped at higher salaries than their predecessors. Yet its new superintendent, Terry Grier, insisted that the overhaul would cost San Diego Unified nothing.

In fact, Grier now says it actually saved schools money. With another budget showdown looming this year, Grier said he saved more than $400,000 by reorganizing his executive cabinet, largely by jettisoning resource teachers in the central office, employees who could be called into schools to help with special instructional projects or model lessons for teachers.

And the superintendent promises to cut more administrative costs by similarly streamlining other departments in the central office. Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris is already shrinking the curriculum department to save an estimated $300,000 to $550,000 on staffers.

“We had too many people downtown,” Grier said. He added, “We are keeping cuts as far away from the classroom, as much as we possibly can.”

But not everyone is happy with the reorganized cabinet. Nor do they agree that the classroom was spared. Employee unions complain that Grier traded teacher support for more remote administrators, and argue that new contracts with outside consultants have already canceled out the cabinet savings. While the reorganization saved money from the central office, they contend that the net shift was from administrators who directly helped teachers to administrators who are less involved.

“They cut positions that provided direct assistance to teachers in schools and took that money for administrators,” said Steve Kaplan, interim executive director of the teachers union. Kaplan argued that the school improvement officers do not effectively replace the eliminated resource teachers. “I’ve never heard that any part of their job was working one-on-one with a teacher.”

Costs outside the classroom are facing heavy scrutiny as San Diego Unified stares down an estimated $40 million shortfall for the current school year. Outside contracts are generating debate on the school board, and San Diego Unified will face renewed pressure to cut from administration this year, less than a year after cutting roughly 200 workers from their central office.

“The mantra has been, ‘Don’t touch the classroom,’” said William Wright, vice chairman of the district audit and finance committee. “But what is the ultimate goal — to eliminate administration? Who cuts the paychecks? Who hires teachers?”

“The administration is the grease that keeps the gears turning,” he said.

That grease has been worn down over time. The overall number of central office jobs — including resource teachers who can be called to schools to assist principals and teachers — dropped in the past three years along with the number of classroom teachers. An outside audit of San Diego Unified also showed that administrative costs dropped 11 percent between 2007 and 2008 while spending on instruction and student support increased. But Grier believes that administration could be thinned even more by reorganizing more departments and offices.

The superintendent argues that his reorganized cabinet is not only cheaper, it is more effective. A bigger crew of school chiefs means each of his top administrators, now called school improvement officers, is charged with overseeing fewer schools and evaluating fewer principals. One of his two chief elementary school improvement officers is Carol Barry, a former area superintendent who said that she now visits each school more often and knows its staff better.

“We have a better sense of what each school is actually trying to accomplish,” Barry said.

Barry now does more of the coaching in classrooms that her crew of resource teachers — now eliminated — had once shouldered. Such teachers are assigned to help with instructional projects at schools by training staffers and developing new teaching methods and materials. Some work at school sites, others are focused on educating students with disabilities, and others are based at the central office. Twenty-one such teachers were cut from the central office, sparing Grier more than $1.3 million in salaries.

Grier said he also cut three principals based in the central office and eliminated a job overseeing a school management program to eliminate another $500,000 in salaries. Those and other savings helped replace the area superintendents with a bigger crew of school improvement officers and bankroll salary bumps for key positions overseeing the human resources department, communications and government relations.

Outgoing school board member Mitz Lee believes the new layout will help realize Grier’s vision of holding employees accountable for concrete changes in student achievement.

“I am not going to meddle in how the superintendent organizes those school improvement officers as long as they implement the goals,” Lee said. “It is much more streamlined and fits our overall mission.”

Apart from its savings, some stakeholders are questioning whether the new structure and spending is good for schools. Newly elected school board member Richard Barrera has heard complaints that the new officers are not supporting schools, but are imposing their own ideas, such as insisting that extra teachers purchased by schools be eliminated. Outside contracts with consultants have also come under fire, most notably from school board member Shelia Jackson, who has argued that the district should stop outsourcing projects entirely during the budget crunch.

Grier has sought outside help from one firm to train principals in a new way to interview teachers and from another to design a new evaluation method for principals. The latter $250,000 contract rivals the salary paid to Grier himself. He argues that such contracts are essential to revamping the district. Experts are already analyzing its finances and Grier said another consultant pared more than $1 million in custodial costs.

“People do the best that they know how,” Grier said. “But when they don’t know what to do, you have to change what they know, and you need someone with the knowledge that they don’t have.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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