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BOARD TO REVIEW HARRIS' PLAN FOR REORGANIZATION

A major shake-up, it's not.

Superintendent James Harris' plan to revamp the school district's central bureaucracy, which the Board of Education is expected to act on tonight, takes an incremental approach.

Some of the particulars are expected to draw criticism, including the addition of a second director of food services and two more assistant superintendents at $75,000 apiece.

At-large member John Doyle said he has been warned by several state lawmakers that approving the second food director's job might hurt the district's chances of getting all the increased state aid it is seeking.

Some board members also might take issue with what is not included, such as more sweeping changes to a bureaucracy that a report two years ago said is in need of major reform.

Harris' plan, however, does call for fundamental changes aimed at improving the quality of instruction. His proposals build on significant changes made in the central office operation over the past two years.

"Bottom line, our goal is to improve the effectiveness of our staff and the performance of our students," Harris said.

Not everyone is persuaded, however.

The bureaucracy's central problem -- a scattering of power and accountability for student performance -- is not corrected by the reorganization, said Bruce Boissonnault, project manager of a Buffalo Financial Plan Commission study of school operations.

"Not only is the reorganization plan tinkering at the margins, but it seems to add more chiefs and further diffuses the accountability for producing results," he said.

Harris has made central office reorganization a priority since coming on board a year ago. His objective is to restructure a
bureaucracy that some have described as stagnant but that has been in transition in response to recommendations the financial plan commission made in March 1995, as well as to big budget gaps the past two years.

When Harris' reorganization plan is combined with earlier changes, the school district will have cut 36 of 58 central office positions called for in the commission's recommendations, at a savings at $2.7 million a year. Most of the cuts that have not been made involve the special education program, where staffing levels have been partly dictated by court orders.

"Where they've been able to move unilaterally, there's been progress in all but two areas," Boissonnault said.

Most of the changes were made over the past two years, and the proposed reorganization cuts costs by only $30,000. Staff has given the board a document that pegs the savings at $742,000, but $712,000 is the result of staff retirements, including 25 teacher aides, rather than changes directly tied to reorganization.

The reorganization plan does not envision any wholesale transfers or demotion of personnel in any of the departments.

"We're trying to utilize the same people in different ways," said Barbara Fargo, associate superintendent for administration and finance.

Two changes in the plant and finance departments are noteworthy, however.

First, an account clerk would be added to handle paperwork that the district files with the state to get reimbursed for school construction programs. The district's failure to file reimbursement requests on time has been a recurring problem.

Second, Harris appears to be sticking to his proposal to duplicate the job of food services director. Harris contends that the second job will improve operations and will cost only an additional $14,000 a year.

"There is no organizational rationale for two food service directors," Boissonnault said. "It might have made sense for Solomon, but it makes lousy business sense."

Doyle said he has been cautioned by two members of the local delegation to the State Legislature that approval of the second job could cost the district state aid. The district is seeking an additional $24 million from the state for the upcoming school years.

"They asked me 'What the heck are you doing?' " Doyle said. "They said it's difficult enough to get additional money, and when you do something like this, it makes it even more difficult."

Most of the changes in the reorganization plan involve the instructional department. "The goal is to have central office people helping people in the schools," Harris said.

The plan is to link schools and the central office through a series of committees and to bolster the quality of instruction by creating a new job -- assistant superintendent for instruction -- who would be responsible for developing and evaluating all instructional programs.

Boissonnault said adding assistant superintendents is not the answer, as it further diffuses power and makes it even more difficult to hold senior staff accountable for student performance. The commission recommended reducing the number of assistant superintendents in instruction from six to four. Harris' plan instead adds one assistant superintendent, bringing their number to seven, and adds two assistant superintendents in other departments while trimming one.

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