IN THE EDMONTON PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT
Jerome G. Delaney
The Newfoundland Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Delivery of Programs and Services in Primary, Elementary, and Secondary Schools (1992) suggested that a model of school administration worthy of consideration was that of participatory management. One such specific model of school administration is school-based management or, as it is more frequently referred to, site-based decision making. The Edmonton Public School District, which serves approximately 70,000 students in Edmonton, Alberta, pioneered this concept in Canada. In 1976 the district initiated a pilot project in seven of its schools and in 1980 had expanded the concept to all of its schools. Today 15 years later, school-based management is functioning successfully and other educational jurisdictions across Canada can look to Edmonton to see how this system of school administration is operationalized on a daily basis. In this article the author traces the beginnings of school-based management in Edmonton Public and discusses the various challenges faced by the district in implementing this system-wide change. In a future article the author will discuss school-based management and its implications for school improvement in Newfoundland and Labrador.
As the story goes (B. McIntosh, personal communication, September 19, 1994), there once was a principal in Edmonton Public Schools who wanted to develop a library in his school. He called the Director of Library Services at the central office and received assurance that he would be able to obtain some books from the district to make his library operational. He then contacted the maintenance director at the central office looking for a supply of lumber in order to make shelves for the library but his request was turned down. He was told that there was no money left for that kind of expenditure. A few days later, maintenance workers showed up at his school with a supply of new doors and informed him that it was time for his school doors to be replaced. The principal protested and explained that he didn't need doors but rather shelving for his library. In disgust, he told the workers to take back the doors!
This actual account does serve to illustrate the significance
of the concept of local decision making, the very basis of school-based
management. Prior to 1976, the Edmonton Public School District operated
under a very centralized system of school management and principals and
teachers, who worked under this centralized system, readily admit that
the above story was just one of many examples of that type of decision
making (B. McIntosh, personal communication, September 19, 1995).
This was symptomatic of what schools and their personnel tolerated prior
to the introduction of school-based management or what was locally referred
to at that time as "school-site budgeting".
The Arrival of Dr. Jones
In 1968 an American educator, Dr. Rolland Jones, became superintendent of the Edmonton Public School District. According to M.A. Kostek (personal communication, February 9, 1995), Jones was a "visionary 20 years ahead of his time" who believed that every principal should be "superintendent of his school". It bothered the chief superintendent that principals did not have the decision-making power he felt was necessary for them to run their schools as effectively as possible. Jones believed that central office administrators and supervisors should serve schools and their principals in an advisory and consultative capacity. Although Jones was keen on the philosophy of site-based decision making, he was unable to operationalize the concept and under his tenure no significant actions were taken to further advance the concept.
However, during Jones' period as superintendent, a young school administrator by the name of Michael Strembitsky was rising through the ranks to eventually become Jones' executive assistant. It was while working under Rolland Jones, who was perceived by many as "Strem's mentor", that Strembitsky began to consider this whole notion of site-based decision making (M.A. Kostek, personal communication, February 9, 1995). Having served as a school administrator in the Edmonton system, Strembitsky had first-hand knowledge of the kinds of decisions being made by central office personnel and it too perturbed him that although principals had the legal authority of being ultimately responsible for everything that went on in their schools, they lacked the financial resources and the flexibility to deploy those resources as they saw fit.
Dr. Jones resigned from Edmonton Public Schools in 1972 and returned
to the United States to serve as superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenberg
School District in North Carolina (Kostek, 1992). Michael Strembitsky
served as acting superintendent in the interim and was officially appointed
superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools in 1973.
The Pilot Project
Strembitsky was now in a position where he could work towards operationalizing his thinking regarding site-based decision making (M.A. Kostek, personal communication, February 9, 1995). In late 1975 he invited schools in the Edmonton Public School District to volunteer to participate in a pilot project on "school-based budgeting". According to R.P. Baker (personal communication, December 20, 1994), the invitation provided little detail about the project because the terms of reference were to be developed with the schools chosen to participate. However, principals were aware that if their schools were chosen to participate, they would be involved in developing a budget which could respond to the individual needs of their schools. The seven schools selected to participate in the pilot -- Grovenor, Hardisty, Kensington, M.E. LaZerte, Lynnwood, Parkdale, and W.P. Wagner -- were announced early in 1976.
The terms of reference and parameters for the pilot, which ran for three years from 1976 to 1979, were as follows (Baker, 1977):
• budgets were to run concurrently with the school operation year -- September to August;
• budgets were to reflect short and long term goals;
• budgets were prepared by program (e.g., Language Arts, Mathematics, Custodial, Utilities, etc.);
• the budgets were to be used as an authorization and control document;
• the school board had to approve each budget prior to commencement of the operating period;
• principals were designated as signing authorities for designated programs;
• average salaries were used for budgeting purposes;
• 1976 budget dollars were used with allowance to be made in 1977 for inflation and salary negotiations;
• provincial curriculum guidelines were to be observed;
• contracts with Board employees were not to be violated;
• the project was not to be used to circumvent problems for which procedures were already developed (pp. 54-55).
Not long after Strembitsky became superintendent, he hired planner Alan Parry whose primary responsibility was to develop a system for school-based budgeting. Parry is regarded by many as the architect of school-based management in the Edmonton Public School District and although he confronted numerous obstacles in setting up that system, he was tenacious in those efforts (M.A. Kostek, personal communication, February 9, 1995). Those efforts included Parry visiting the Dade County School District in Florida and the Orange County School District in California where school-based management had been in operation for some time. It was during the Californian trip that he met two consultants, Fred Wellington and Les Shuck, who provided invaluable assistance to the Edmonton Public School District during the pilot stage and the early district-wide implementation years.
R.P. Baker (personal communication, December 20, 1994) and Victor
Nakonechny (personal communication, December 21, 1994), two of the pilot
principals, recalled that when their schools had decided to get involved
in the pilot project, there was a certain amount of apprehension and anxiety
on the part of teachers. "They nor I weren't quite sure what we were
getting ourselves into but overall there was a considerable amount of co-operation
from teachers and that certainly was instrumental in making the pilot work,"
The Role of the School Board
Although the Edmonton Public School District is well recognized in the literature on school-based management (e.g., Brown, 1990; Herman & Herman, 1993; Mohrman & Wohlstetter, 1994), it appears that the School Board itself has not received the appropriate recognition for its leadership role in approving Superintendent Stembitsky's pilot initiative and eventual district-wide implementation of the concept (J. Cowling, personal communication, February 15, 1995).
Former board chairperson Joan Cowling, who spent 12 years as a
trustee and who began her term of service in 1980, the first year of the
district-wide implementation, has suggested that the public and at times
the trustees themselves, didn't always appreciate the leadership role that
the board played in facilitating the start of school-based management in
the Edmonton Public School District (J. Cowling, personal communication,
February 15, 1995). She too recalled the anxiety and uncertainty
of teachers in the district when the decision was made to go district-wide:
"It was certainly a classic example of a paradigm shift and the first year
was a real learning experience for all of us." During the implementation
years, principals were invited to meet with board subcommittees to discuss
their educational plans and Cowling recalled that it was around 1984 or
1985 when the concept of school-based management seemed to "become institutionalized
and have taken on a life and philosophy of its own" (J. Cowling, personal
communication, February 15, 1995).
Obstacles to Implementation
In retrospect, one can now agree that the strategy of starting off with a seven school pilot project was certainly a successful one. In the late 1970s there was a paucity of written information on the concept and apart from some isolated efforts in the United States and none in Canada, there were no locations where Edmonton Public administrators could go to view a model operation (M.A. Kostek, personal communication, February 9, 1995).
In fact, Edmonton was indeed "blazing new trails" and of course there were a number of obstacles that had to be overcome. One of the most obvious obstacles at the time was the resistance on the part of central office personnel who worked in the area of finances. One gets the impression that those personnel were rather skeptical as to whether or not school principals could actually handle the financial end of the process (B. McIntosh, personal communication, September 19, 1994). Also, with control over the finances, these individuals wielded considerable power over the schools and perceived their very existence and employment to be threatened by the introduction of school-based management. Consequently, it was obvious that many roadblocks had to be overcome.
Another impediment at that time was the lack of computerization at the central office. This computerization would have greatly facilitated the generation of much-needed data for making budgetary decisions (A. Durand, personal communication, December 22, 1994). Hours and hours of tedious, time-consuming manual labor were expended in order to come up with information, such as determining allocations, which was vital to the decision-making process.
In spite of these impediments, the tenacity and perseverance of
Michael Strembitsky, Alan Parry and others, along with the leadership and
supportive role of the trustees, paid off and became a reality (M.A. Kostek,
personal communication, February 9, 1995). As Kostek (1992) has so
For years, educators have discussed the benefits of decision making at the school level by people who are affected by those decisions--students, parents, teachers and principals. The theorizing has stopped in Edmonton where site-based management has been a reality for over a decade (p. 432).The Allocation System
Andre Durand of the Edmonton Public School District (personal communication, December 22, 1994), in reflecting back over the introduction of school-based management, recalled that the change in structure the district experienced when converting to school-based management was a very significant one. Now principals were expected to take on a new role with a much greater emphasis on planning, decision making, and involving teachers in those processes. To assist principals in becoming more proficient in those new roles, the central office provided consulting services which were available on a voluntary basis to school administrators.
One of the greatest challenges facing the district with the advent of this decentralized approach to school governance was deciding how to allocate financial resources to individual schools (A. Durand, personal communication, December 22, 1994). Prior to the transition to school-based management, schools received a printout late in the previous school year listing how much money they would be allocated for the various departments. There was a limited amount of flexibility with those allocated amounts. And of course, principals, who were very astute politically, knew of different ways to increase those amounts for their schools. Traditionally, two percent of the money utilized by schools actually went out to the schools. With this district-wide change, it would eventually increase to approximately 75 percent.
Durand (personal communication, December 22, 1994) emphasized that one of the things the central office held "very sacred and guarded with our lives was the concept that if you're going to give people responsibility, you must also give them the resources. You cannot say to them you will now have the responsibility but we are going to control the money." The challenge, after it had been decided as to what responsibilities were going to the schools and what responsibilities would stay with the district, was to determine how to actually distribute the monies to allow individual schools to meet those responsibilities. The "paradigm shift", earlier mentioned by Cowling, came into play because schools now had to make decisions which, under the previous centralized system, were made for them--how many supplies, equipment, services were needed, what levels of staffing were required to offer their programs, what kind of staff mix with regards to certificated and noncertificated staff would be sufficient to offer programs and so forth. Responsibility now lay with the schools for making those kinds of decisions. Previously, those decisions were taken by central office with some input from the schools.
The district office was very keen on having the allocations "student-driven and not supply-driven, not equipment-driven, not staff-driven so that there would be a way to distribute the money and to get away from the old concept of having supplies-equipment-services (SES) money assigned and staff money assigned" (A. Durand, personal communication, December 22, 1994). Durand further stated that "it was important for us to shake the tree so as to get as much money out of the tree as possible." Central office supervisors responsible for the various subject areas were reluctant to give away their budgets and what it came down to in the final analysis was that "it took a group of central office administrators with a single purpose of determining what was to go to the schools to decide which resources would be decentralized" (A. Durand, personal communication, December 22, 1994).
The next step in the allocation process was to try and come up with a relative weighting for students. That weighting procedure resulted in various ratios being developed (the baseline ratio being 1.00) which attempted to relate to the actual needs of students. It is important to remember here that this system was a completely new way of allocating financial resources and that this system was not one that was being used by the provincial government at that time.
As the school district made decisions regarding the allocation of financial resources to the schools, in a similar vein, the schools would then have to make their own decisions regarding the deployment of those resources. And back in the early 1980s when school-based management went system-wide, this was indeed quite a dramatic shift in the way decisions were made.
In the 1985-86 school year a review of the allocation system was conducted and it was decided to move from a whole listing of individual student categories to a grouping of categories called "levels". Over the years the system was further streamlined and today there are eight levels serving as the basis of allocation.
Back in the early years of school-based management, it took central
office personnel three to four weeks to get back to the schools with confirmation
of the actual amounts of money they would be receiving after the September
30 cutoff date. Today with computerization, that same confirmation
period has been reduced to approximately five calendar days.
A Final Word
Although individuals such as former school trustee Cowling are quick to acknowledge that school-based management is by no means the perfect system, she is of the opinion that this decentralized approach represented a dramatic improvement in the way schools were administered (J. Cowling, personal communication, February 15, 1995).
Baker, R.P. (1977). School-based budget. Challenge in Educational Administration, XVI (1 & 2), 53-56.
Kostek, M.A. (1992). A century and ten: The history of Edmonton Public Schools. Edmonton, AB: Edmonton Public Schools.
Newfoundland Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Delivery of
Programs and Services in Primary, Elementary, and Secondary Schools (1992).
Our children, our future. St. John's, NF: Government
of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Author Biographical Note
Jerome G. Delaney recently received a Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Administration at the University of Alberta. His dissertation "The Relationship Between School-based Management and School Improvement" involved schools in the Edmonton Public School District. Jerome has served as a teacher and administrator with the Appalachia Roman Catholic School District based in Stephenville and is presently a junior high teacher at St. Kevin's Elementary School in the Goulds. His e-mail address is: email@example.com