It seems as though our good Dr. Magouyrk is up to something. I've seen an article on the Patch, petitions on Facebook calling for at least defeat of this plot and, at worst, hanging in the public square. I've also had several parents write me asking me to explain what the deal is. I hate to disappoint everyone but I really don't know all of the particulars of education policy. Indeed, my critics would gleefully point out that I'm probably lucky to remember to breathe! However, I do try to help things along when I can make a call and get a meeting with someone. I did just that with the good Dr. (btw, I'm shortening her name to D-Mag from now on. It's just too cool a moniker not to use. Too bad I don't have one. "A-harr" is just sad) and she agreed to meet me for lunch to explain the goings-on.
First of all, I need to tell anyone who bothers to read this screed that I'll roll through my conversation with D-Mag and then onto a bit of an opinion piece. You'll probably want to skip the opinion piece as you'll be drooling and clinging to consciousness about halfway through it so….you've been warned.
I met with the Superintendent at my city office for lunch. We've met a few times before and, while I wouldn't consider us BFF's, I do think we're comfortable enough with each other to have a discussion. I asked her straight away to explain the 111-teacher layoff and here's what I got: It isn't a layoff. The 111 number is based on the State's recommended SOL staffing formula. Stated differently, the state has a formula that they use to give guidance as to how many teachers are required for a given number of children. When you apply that formula to Manassas, you end up with 111 too many positions. I pointed out that this seemed to be a relatively crude measure of staffing and she agreed. What she has done is to take those "excess" positions and ask the Principals in the affected schools to justify those positions. If they really need 'em, she'll keep them. If they are teachers with 3 students in a class then maybe not. She also offered that as those positions are above the state formula, Manassas receives no state funding for them. In a system that spends more on a per-student basis than our surrounds, she believes it is important to be mindful of that gap. I agree.
I decided to press her somewhat on the spending gap and what could create that delta. She indicated that she didn't have all of the answers but that she's looking everywhere. At least some of that is evidenced by her zero-based budgeting approach this year and her determination to make a difficult change if she believes it will make a difference. I could tell from our discussion that this gap bothers her quite a bit. She's a pretty conservative gal I think. Certainly the staff numbers need examination but so do, in her opinion, all of the operational areas.
The last thing we talked about was the Central Office saga. She indicated that she currently has her staff spread across all of the school buildings in the City. I don't really see that as a crisis but understand the concern. Of more interest to her is rebuilding Baldwin elementary school. Enrollment in our schools is increasing and we need more space for those kids. Pretty much everyone agrees that the cheapest way to make that happen is to build that new school on the same space occupied by the Central Office – we already own the land. This means, of course, that Central Office has to move elsewhere.
That pretty much summed up our conversation as we both agreed it would be a quick lunch. So….what do I think? I think that this is all pretty normal. Is it counter-intuitive that a reduction in headcount could produce better results? sure but a resulting increase in focus might be very productive. Does it seem frivolous to be interested in new digs for the school administration? Maybe, but not in light of the plan for rebuilding Baldwin. Look, change makes people uncomfortable. Change is a hard, nasty business. Established interests oppose it. Proponents tar opponents as dim-witted Luddites. Parents get nervous and PTA's get involved. After all, you're shaking up the environment in which those same parents most cherished possessions are: their children. Everyone wants the best for their children.
However, more and more of our residents are deciding that "the best" for their children means moving. This is not a tenable situation. We must change our schools for the better and the only way that can happen is to plow the tough ground ahead of us. I believe we must give our Superintendent the room to do the fact-finding, planning and re-organizing that her expertise leads her to believe are necessary. Might it cost some folks their jobs or end up costing the city more money? It might. It might not. I don't have any idea just yet but I do know this: what we were doing previously wasn't working and if our system is to be successful it must look different. As I've stated before, we've got kick-ass teachers and good administrators. There's no reason we can't be successful but the one thing we can't do is be afraid to take the difficult decisions. This system can't look or work like it did before. It's going to take a couple of difficult years but this is what Manassas has always done. Our leadership and our citizens have joined arms dozens of times over the past 50 years and done the tough duty: Lake, airport, school system, building new schools, career fire and rescue and on and on. We're not afraid of the hard work.
The one thing that I do know for sure is that if your idea of change is to simply parachute a different body into the corner office over on Tudor Lane every coupla years that the ultimate failure of the whole system is screaming towards us at 500 miles an hour. No organization on the planet does such a thing and is successful. You bring in new leaders 'cause the organization ain't working and needs new vision, direction and energy. Those three things ultimately result in an organization that looks different. Give D-Mag some support and room to work. Roll up your sleeves and pitch in. I was as surprised as anyone else by this turn of events but after chatting with her, I think it's still something I'm willing to support as a path forward. We must pursue all paths forward, even the difficult ones.