A principal's view: Amazing waste at CPS
By Troy LaRaviere
In July of 2013 I attended a program titled "Leadership Launch with Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett." It was aimed at motivating principals to attend a series of professional development workshops organized by SUPES Academy, a training organization that is at the heart of a federal inquiry. Byrd-Bennett, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, is on a paid leave of absence in light of the investigation of the district's decision to award a $20.5 million no-bid contract to SUPES.
- Troy LaRaviere
As expected, the program I attended did not begin with any discussion of leadership training. Instead, we got what we had come to expect at every principals' meeting: talk of an impending budget apocalypse that can only be solved by CPS defaulting on its obligation to provide a secure retirement for its teachers.
The meeting opened with Board of Education member and former principal Mahalia Hines, whose comments were aimed at preparing principals for budget austerity. She mentioned principals who had written grants and secured external funding. She praised their efforts because, in her words, "You can't rely on the board to get funding for your schools." She then introduced Byrd-Bennett who continued the austerity theme with empty corporate-speak about principals "leveraging partnerships" to get free or low-cost services for CPS students.
"Did she really just say that?" I wondered. "Did she just tell us we need to make up for lost funding by leveraging partnerships? Did CPS not just leverage a multimillion-dollar partnership with SUPES with funds taken directly from schools' budgets?"
Eventually, the meeting turned to SUPES training. Byrd-Bennett, formerly employed by the academy, spent a lot of time praising the leadership development program and ended her spiel on a foreboding note. She said if we didn't like the training, we should give feedback on how to make it better rather than criticize the program. The comment made me wonder if CPS was spending millions on a well-developed program or was SUPES field-testing a series of untried and unproven programs still in the developmental stage. Was it serving us, or were we serving SUPES? I would soon find out.
At my first SUPES session, I sat next to a principal who had participated in previous SUPES workshops. I asked her what she thought of the academy. "A waste of time" was her answer. My session was filled with CPS talking points about "student-based budgeting." The chief complaints from principals about student-based budgeting were that it slashed their budgets, forced them to increase class size to save money and pushed them to hire cheaper, inexperienced teachers. It was as if students were being deliberately undermined. In fact, the whole process is best described as "sabotage-based budgeting."
My second SUPES course went well. I had great conversations with fellow principals and learned a lot from them. At the end of the session, the facilitator announced, "I know I went off script and just let you guys talk, but I felt that was what you needed today." My disgust returned as I realized the reason the session went so well was because the facilitator ditched the SUPES curriculum and just let principals talk and learn from one another. Did CPS really need to pay SUPES $20.5 million to put principals in a room so that we could talk to each other?
Soon afterward, Byrd-Bennett learned principals were becoming vocal about their poor assessment of SUPES. She sent us an email giving us the option to opt-out of the training but requested an opt-out form be sent directly to her. Principals saw it as a threat. I decided to send mine in but was talked out of it by a CPS official who said she would move me from the "New Principals" group to the "Rising and Achieving" group (you can't make this stuff up).
I am not against investing in principal training. My time as an assistant principal was the best training I could imagine. During my first year as principal, CPS assigned me a coach — a retired CPS principal whose feedback was extremely helpful in that it assisted me in getting school stakeholders involved in school improvement planning and decision-making. The coaching was relevant because it was provided in the context of my day-to-day work duties. SUPES training was prepackaged, underdeveloped and often irrelevant.
My third SUPES session was titled "Marketing Your School." We were told perception was more important than reality, that principals needed to focus on shaping public perception of their schools. Again, the contradictions were enraging. I told my colleagues that when I became a principal, my staff and I focused on improving our school and enhancing student learning. Without that, there's nothing to market. To me, it appeared CPS was more concerned with changing perception than changing the reality of students' academic lives.
Up to that point, the principals attending that session were relatively passive, but afterward a lively debate ensued about the contradictions between CPS' public statements versus its actions, and SUPES' philosophy.
The bigger picture
There now needs to be a public debate about the contradictions of CPS' stated austerity and its continued wasteful spending on everything from absentee custodial management firms to charter schools to spending $9.5 million on furniture for the district's new offices.
Eventually this public conversation needs to make its way up the chain of command — to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office.
Troy LaRaviere is the principal of Blaine Elementary School.