Thursday, October 28, 2004

Chris McKeon answers the DC Education Blog

I'm happy to say we've had our first response to the questionnaire we sent to the Board of Education candidates. Chris McKeon, who is running for the open District 1 seat, has sent us his reply to our slate of questions. Click on Read More below to read the candidate's answers.

When compared to the rest of the country DCPS is one of the higher funded school districts on a per-student basis, yet funds appear to be scarce at the school/student level.

1. Do you feel that DCPS is adequately funded at the current level? If not, where would you expect further funding to come from?

Yes, DCPS as a whole is funded adequately to the tune of nearly 1 Billion dollars. But the classroom is woefully underfunded. The problem is not money, as the mayor recently said, but financial mismanagement that wastes tens of millions of dollars and diverts money from the front line of teaching. To realign DCPS spending priorities, a new management culture needs to be established at the Board level with a focus on child-centric decision-making, enforced performance accountability metrics aimed at the superintendent, a complete cleanout of the bureaucracy by an outside turnaround firm, and a refocused mission statement that clearly describes what the Board and DCPS is tasked to accomplish and how they will do so. For example, written board policy can state that the first call for funds goes to the classroom before any other priority. This must then be backed up by a new management culture that respects its own decisions and enforces the rules. The Board should manage the superintendent the way a board of directors manages a CEO, and the superintendent should then be free to run the "company" as necessary, in accordance with Board policy.

The recent DC Inspector General audits have highlighted that DCPS's budgetary controls are inadequate, highlighting waste and graft within the school system.

2. What will you do to help restore fiduciary discipline to DCPS?

Almost every problem in DCPS is rooted in bad management. Poor oversight, lax financial controls, winking at graft and cronyism, vast mismanagement of funds, disregard for funding controls and grant requirements...all of these result from an out-of-touch management at the board level that simply isn't interested enough to rise to the challenge. What other organization in America so consistently fails its mission and openly wastes and steals vast sums of money, yet gets still more money thrown at it? My solution: persuade the board to establish a new management culture that is rooted in open books, performance accountability, zero tolerance for incompetence and legal violations, a written operational manual and code of conduct that binds the Board members in the same way the US Congress has written rules governing itself. For example: DCPS employees who are found found violating DCPS policy or the law must be disciplined, fired and/or sent to jail. The Board should spend its time analyzing and setting policy, not voting to buy computers...that's the superintendent's job. The board must manage the superintendent's performance and hold him accountable for the management of DCPS. The superintendent should be free to hire and fire at will to root out the problems, enforce discipline and obedience to the line of authority, and to establish best management practices.

3. Would you support giving DCPS budget control over to the superintendent?  Why or why not?

No. The board is the elected representative of the people, and must be responsible for setting the overall public budget. The only real level of accountability the People have is at the Board level. At the granular level, however, the superintendent should be empowered to allocate money within a budget category the board defines and funds, but not across categories. In other words, while the Board sets broad funding obligations for the budget, the superintendent sets narrow, detailed funding obligations within each broad category set by the Board.

During his current term there has been a power struggle between the Mayor's office, the DC council and the Board of Education over control of DCPS.

4. How should the DC Board of Education be structured?  A hybrid (as current), all elected (as it is slated to change in 2008) or some other configuration?  Why do you believe your choice represents the best option?

First of all, American tradition rests heavily on locally-controlled schools, and this is a fundamental tenet of our democratic society. Hence there is no substitute for the parents and taxpayers of a locality having control over their children's education. School boards the nation over have always presented a management headache because it's a small-stature office but often in control of vast sums of money, and is also a perfect springboard to higher office. But such problems are not insurmountable because the People ultimately have control. The District's citizens deserve to control their education at its highest management level, the school board and through their elected representatives, to demand and get good, accountable management.

That being said, let's look at structure. Great, wealthy companies collapse because of bad management, and ruined companies rise from the ashes because of good management. A school system is just a public business. Because it's public, with a guaranteed cash flow (unlike a real business), school systems traditionally ignore management reality and inevitably destroy public education until reformers come along to salvage it. Here we are in this exact predicament in DC.

The Board should function like a board of directors, which oversees a Chief Executive Officer responsible for the day-to-day operations of the organization. The Board sets general policy, hires and fires senior executives based on performance accountability metrics the Board sets, and defines and upholds the organization's overall mission statement. The Board of Education is an elected body, and like any elected body, requires a written manual of operations and a binding code of conduct to ensure managerial stability and continuity as elected members come and go. Establising this type of school board is the first step in creating real, measurable reform in DCPS rather than the typical half measures and incremental efforts the ultimately are defeated by the entrenched bureaucracy and go nowhere.

Hence, the Board should set policy and budget, and the superintendent should run the day-to-day operations under their watchful eye and be held accountable for his performance, just as the superintendent must hold those under him accountable for their performance. Establishing this clear line of authority is a necessary first step in the re-establishing management credibility in the schools.

5. If you could reshape the power structure around DCPS what would be the role/responsibilities of
  • The Mayor's Office
  • The Board of Education
  • The Superintendent

Power derives from control of money and policy. The City Council is the voice of the People, it is empowered to raise money from citizens and to spend it, and should control the total dollar amount of DCPS funding in consultation with DCPS. The Mayor as executive must sign off on this legislation and naturally has influence here. The Board of Education, also an elected body but which has no taxing authority, is responsible to determine allocation and to spend this money, and to set DCPS policy. There is a clear demarcation of power here: City Council/Mayor control the purse, the Board controls expenditure and education policy.

I believe the above structure creates a tension that provides for checks and balances, something sorely missing in the current DCPS structure and its relationship with the City Council and Mayor. The Board must publicly justify their budgets and the Council influences but cannot set education policy through this process. The Board runs the school system, but must justify their use of money to the people of the District through their elected representatives who tax them on the City Council.

Superintendent Janey has recently laid out an early plan of action regarding DC's public school, including closing/consolidating schools, culling the middle management ranks of underperforming employees, setting new curricula standards, adding flexibility to a students graduation path, and moving DCPS headquarters to a less costly building.

6. Do you support the superintendent on each of these issues?  Why or why not?

I support all of Superintendent Janey’s efforts to reform the system, especially culling the bureaucracy. I do not necessarily support consolidating schools, as I believe neighborhood schools are an important component of our public education system. All the items you mention are long overdue.

7. What other changes not highlighted by the superintendent do you feel are important/necessary?

The Superintendent needs to consider culling the ranks of upper management, because they are the ones who have most failed to exercise good management and oversight of those below them. In addition, he needs to consider how many administrators are really need for a system our size. The Archdiocese of Washington, DC has 17+ administrators for 50,000 students, while DCPS has 1500+ for 65,000 students. It’s a vast difference that must be properly investigated and remedied as necessary. Doing so will no only free up money for the classroom, but streamline the bureaucracy so that system performance improves.

8. What are your views on the issue of teacher promotion based on performance vs. seniority?

Performance should always trump seniority, just as it does in most of the private sector. Why promote an incompetent person who has seniority over a less senior person who’s competent? It’s idiotic and a disservice to our children. Two teachers who are equally competent in the performance evaluations should be promoted based on seniority. Two teachers whose performance evaluation differs should be first judged on their performance, and then on their seniority.

"School choice" has been a highly charged issue within the District.

9. What are your views about DC's Federal voucher program?  Do you support the program?  Would you support an expansion of the program?

I do not support vouchers in general because they are an extremely costly and inefficient method for providing public school choice, although I agree that they provide an outlet for students in failing schools. But when less than 2% of the student population is permitted to use vouchers, it is an extremely discriminatory and unfair system. Even if we expand the voucher program to allow any student in a failing school to enter the voucher system, what will that do for us? Send all our students to private schools on the public dole. Pointless. Charters are under DCPS control to some extent, are accountable to parents, and are a positive force to prompt reform in the public schools. Charters are a far better school choice than vouchers.

10. What are your views on charter schools in the District?  Do you support independent charter schools (those who receive funding but are not under direct supervision of DCPS)?

Yes, I support charter schools. They’re successful because they are NOT under direct DCPS supervision. They provide an excellent environment of innovation in management and operations and academics that the public schools can study and emulate. They are a positive force for change in the public schools. They are a very fair method of getting children out of failing schools…far better than vouchers.

Finally, a little about your plans.

11. What are the top 3 issues you will act on within the first 90 days if you are elected to the Board?

I will immediately begin the process of developing a consensus among the school board, city council, mayor and citizens on the following three initiatives, and I am the only candidate doing this:

  1. Follow former superintendent candidate Carl Cohn’s prescription to bring in an outside turnaround firm to make the hard decisions the board is unwilling to make to clean our the bloated bureaucracy and institute needed institutional reform in management, operations, academics and finance. In addition, I will persuade the board to establish written procedures by which the board governs its members so that the board’s mandate can be properly fulfilled, and members know what is expected of them, what their job is, and what their boundaries are.
  2. By reforming the management culture in the board, as well as in the superintendent’s office, I will persuade the board to make public accountability at all levels the norm for the school system, including empowering the superintendent to hire/fire anyone necessary. The board is accountable to the citizens, and the superintendent is accountable to the board, and all other employees are accountable to the superintendent and their managers.
  3. Establish a District-wide core curriculum that governs the learning process, but that also allows for local school requirements, both remedial and exceptional.

12. How do you envision the DC Public School not only equaling, but surpassing the quality and achievements displayed by the likes of our neighbors in Fairfax and Montgomery counties?

The problem with DC public schools can be spoken in two words: BAD MANAGEMENT. Our schools stink because of bad management at the Board level. It all starts and ends with the Board of Education. None of the candidates is offering any vision or showing any desire to reform the Board of Education’s management culture and functionality process, except Christopher McKeon. With good, effective management and oversight at the Board level, the competent and effective employees of DCPS will be empowered and authorized to emulate the effective practices of better school systems, and to innovate to exceed them.


We sincerely thank Mr. McKeon for taking the time to reply to our questionnaire. To learn more about the candidate you can visit his campaign website here.

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