by David Safier
I opened my paper this morning to find this screaming headline on the front page, top right hand column: Sanchez left financial experts frustrated. Sounds bad. Sounds really bad. I unfolded the paper, took a sip of coffee and began reading.
I read the story once, paused to drink more coffee and clear my head, then read it again. The second reading left me with the same impression as the first. There's not a whole lot of there there. The English teacher in me wanted to call the article Much Ado About Nothing, but that wouldn't have been fair. The article is about something. To tweak Shakespeare's title a bit, the article is Much Ado About Management Style. And it's not nearly consequential enough to merit a front page story above the fold.
Here's the thrust of the article. Superintendent H.T. Sanchez made financial decisions without consulting his Chief Financial Officer Karla Soto or his Deputy Superintendent Yousef Awwad who had been CFO before Soto. The article said both of them were frustrated with Sanchez at times and expressed their concerns in emails. Most of the concerns came from Awwad. Soto was mostly frustrated with the behind-deadline budget process which made it difficult for her to answer questions about the budget. That's about it.
Sanchez makes decisions without consulting administrators who should be in the loop, the article states. I'm not surprised. Given his style and the hurry he's in to move his agenda forward at TUSD, I imagine that happens on more than one occasion. So, what are the items Sanchez is impatiently pushing forward by taking some shortcuts with the process? According to the article:
Those initiatives included opening two early-learning centers, addressing salary inequity issues, lowering class sizes and moving away from the practice of annual layoffs.
Sounds like a pretty good agenda to me.
If the new programs Sanchez has put in place are valuable, the two questions raised by the article are: (1) Should Sanchez have consulted others more? and (2) Is he putting the district in hock with his expensive new programs? The answer to the first is probably Yes, he should consult with administrators more, at the district and school levels. The answer to the second is, we don't know if he's spending the district into debt. Awwad made that sound possible in the analysis he sent to Michael Hicks, but we haven't seen the figures beyond Awwad's early-in-the-school-year predictions.
That's really not a whole lot to wrap a lengthy, front page article around.
Let's dispense with the question of the possible $15 million deficit for the moment, not because it's unimportant but because there are a few shoes which will probably drop in the next few days. Let's take a look at Sanchez's management style.
Here's a private enterprise comparison. A company has been steadily losing business for the past few years, and maybe losing its focus as well. So it brings in a new CEO who is given the mission of turning the company around. She gets rid of some of the old management and replaces them with her own picks. She cuts through red tape and makes some bold decisions on her own, or pretty much on her own, which ruffle a lot of feathers since they shake up the status quo. That's her management style. Did she do the right thing? The answer is, if a few years down the road the company stabilizes, maybe even gets back some of the business it lost, all that commotion was worth it, and the CEO will be hailed as a visionary on the newspaper's business page. But if the company slips and falls and her initiatives drive it to the brink of bankruptcy, her tenure will be criticized harshly on that same business page. It's not the style so much as the results which she'll be judged by.
But school districts aren't businesses, so let's look at a deficit-ridden, ineffective city government where a new mayor comes in promising to make the city work better. Again, he's a bold decision maker. City managers lose their jobs. Others are shuffled around and given new assignments. He does a little robbing Peter to pay Paul to move some of his projects forward. Just like that company in the previous paragraph, if his agenda shows results, if the city becomes more vibrant and the job situation improves, he's a successful mayor. If things get worse, he's a bum. Once again, it's not so much the management style as the results that matter.
A company, a city government, a school district doesn't exist for the sake of its employees. It exists to show positive results. If a little dose of "disruption" — a favorite business term these days which is being used in educational circles as well — improves things, then it's probably a good thing. But if the disruption makes things worse, then it's a bad thing.
Just one more point, folks, and then I'm done. (Sorry about all these long, ponderous posts lately, but I've been writing about complex issues and I want to talk about them in some detail.)
I have to say, I'm amused to watch folks hearing administrators complaining about Sanchez and taking what the administrators say at face value, as if their complaints are unquestionably valid and they're speaking for the majority of the district. I'm amused because many of these same folks complain about all the administrative bureaucracy in the district and refer to administrators as "overpaid bureaucrats protecting their perks and their fiefdoms who are a big part of the reason TUSD is in such lousy shape." All of a sudden, these same administrators are their heroes by speaking out against someone who is making their lives more difficult.
Now, I'm not one of those administration bashers. Sure there are lousy administrators out there, and sure there are some positions that don't do anyone a hell of a lot of good, but there has to be an administrative bureaucracy, and national stats say that Arizona spends a lower percentage of its education budget on school administration than almost every other state. So I don't think administrators are the enemy. But indulge me here while I try a little semantic experiment, where we put some recent complaints made about Sanchez by administrators together with people's negative feelings toward all those "overpaid bureaucrats protecting their perks and their fiefdoms who are a big part of the reason TUSD is in such lousy shape." Here's what we get.
1. According to the article in the Star, some overpaid bureaucrats protecting their perks and their fiefdoms who are a big part of the reason TUSD is in such lousy shape complained that Superintendent Sanchez doesn't consult with them enough.
2. An overpaid bureaucrat who spent the past few years protecting his perks and his fiefdom and is a big part of the reason TUSD is in such lousy shape left the district, but before he left, he alleged that the district is in danger of going $15 million in debt.
3. A group of overpaid bureaucrats protecting their perks and their fiefdoms who are a big part of the reason TUSD is in such lousy shape got together and wrote two anonymous letters complaining that they're not being treated with enough respect by Superintendent Sanchez and he's making too many changes in the district.
Those three statements have a different ring to them when I call the administrators the names lots of people who complain about TUSD call them. It's hard to have it both ways. If administrators and all that overblown bureaucracy are the problem, why in the world would folks believe them when they complain? Or if folks believe them when they complain, why haven't they shown the administrators the same respect in the past?