Tuesday marked my final day as the chief operating officer for Alexandria City Public Schools. I begin this letter with an apology to ACPS parents and the school community.
During the last few years I told you that things would be different when I came; that ACPS and the city were jointly committed, as evidenced by a strongly supported budget and the recent hiring of seasoned, visionary and well-respected professionals; that ACPS’ business practice posture could and would be transformed by establishing new, long-term structural improvements in the areas of facilities, operations and contracting accountability; that those efforts were serious and underway.
I meant it, but it wasn’t true.
Many residents told me that the history of ACPS and the city made them skeptical of my promise, but they hoped that I could pull it off. Community members, parents and staff yearning for real change repeatedly asked me:
“How long are YOU going to be here, Mrs. Anthony?”
“Your strategies sound encouraging – and we know it will take time – but is it possible?”
“Do you have the support of leadership?”
“Do you have the support of the school board?”
And with no doubts, I replied, “Yes!”
But I was wrong. So, while the staff I leave behind will strive to keep up, the bench of people executing the work and the depth of expert leadership and trust promised to you is not there.
The folks in place are broadening their shoulders and will stretch themselves beyond capacity by keeping their heads down and checking boxes that will inevitably lead to burnout, replacement or they will also depart, despite their passion for ACPS and the children of Alexandria.
So, what happened?
Some ACPS leadership and staff recognized a downward shift in my influence about a year ago. I remained focused. Then, this past December, after a disagreement about how to de-escalate transportation employee complaints, my position of chief operating officer, among other positions, was eliminated by the school board as part of what came off as a hastily generated restructuring plan by Superintendent Dr. Gregory C. Hutchings Jr., Ed.D.
The reasons given were the need to pay for other new positions and the creation of a leaner reporting matrix for the superintendent. As you have experienced in years past, the ACPS musical chairs have begun once again.
The three to five years required for real, meaningful change to take hold is gone and the clock is now once more re-set. ACPS’ commitment to continuity and improved facilities business processes – which includes protecting and efficiently executing the audacious city-supported $500-plus million capital improvement program over 10 years – is now struggling and uncertain.
This undeniably complex program is being managed by a single person, with leadership taking an exorbitant amount of time to understand and approve the allocations needed for appropriate technical personnel resources. These examples are now in ACPS’ rearview mirror, original plans uncoupled, as the focus on COVID-19 solutions takes center stage.
And although community criticism may escalate, ultimately, citizens and parents will have to take what they can get and hope for the best.
I kept waiting this winter for either the school board or perhaps city council to ask (some? any?) difficult or probing questions about, if nothing else, the impact of risking the CIP by making such a deep shift in leadership when investments to positively impact long-suffering, deferred maintenance services and programs were already underway.
The silence was, and still is, deafening.
If these questions were contemplated, it was not in the public forum and it never was asked of me. What I also find unfathomable is that only one elected official, Councilor John Chapman, dared to ask me in passing, his words delicate in curiosity and respect, about my departure. He asked me what I believed spurred this change of direction.
There has been zero engagement or query of me, arguably one of the most senior officials in ACPS and the architect of an entire department strategy for two years, or my staff, to discuss the impact of my departure, the change in priorities and approach and what needs to happen to protect taxpayer dollars.
This latest restructuring effort flies squarely in the face of the intense and seminal undertakings by previous Superintendent Alvin Crawley and Interim Superintendent Lois Berlin and their school boards. Berlin launched an upgraded platform for improvement into motion in preparation for Hutchings’ arrival.
In addition, the Ad-Hoc Joint City/Schools Facilities Investment Task Force – on which I served and was a sub-committee chair – the city manager’s team, city council and others all put countless hours of work into fundamental structural changes.
What’s the harm, you ask? Scrapping this progress at this point in time has left ACPS scrambling for a coordinated plan for reopening under COVID-19 and re-imagining work and on various state compliance issues.
At this critical time, when ACPS needs the voice and solutions of every demonstrated leader and change-agent mind, what you actually have behind the scenes is a hurt and confused, disappointed, insecure, silenced and desperately hard-working staff. This seems to be the ACPS legacy.
On July 1, 2020, in one fell swoop, ACPS is beginning a new fiscal year without a chief operating officer, chief human resources officer, director of transportation, director of safety and security as well as the director of procurement, who recently resigned. I fear others may be contemplating escape or a protective posture – meaning, only do what you are told.
And with no offense intended, new and acting leadership lacking comparable experience in transformational change are now running the show. Those of us leaving will disappear into obscurity never to be spoken of or heard from again – reduced to just another round of ACPS casualties to bite the dust.
I refuse to ascribe to that expectation.
I also have no doubt that this letter will be judged by some as sour grapes, a disservice, distraction or even disloyalty towards Hutchings and the school board, especially during these trying times.
But I don’t mind being a whistleblower at this point in my career if it allows me to share my knowledge for better and to shed light where attention is crucial and possible.
So please know, citizens, that this is not about me personally. It’s about the modernization ACPS committed to seeking and that has now been upended and the unacceptable void that you, the citizens, are paying for.
It is about a referendum against institutional failures that allow such a situation to continue to occur. A prescription for long-term, not incidental, change for facilities and operations including effective, common sense accountability must be given a chance to take hold and to prevail.
A warning: ACPS Human Resources policy will be blamed for a variety of issues here, including why discussions with me never took place. Don’t believe it.
This dysfunction is an ACPS culture that hides and thrives in the same vein as systemic and entrenched racism in the school system as well as educational elitism among its ranks. These factors undermine and impede the ability to inculcate progressive thinking, and to some degree, even implant industry standards into ACPS business processes and practices.
As the division ascends toward the new five-year strategic plan, foresight serving a greater and agile comprehensive good for the division must be truly desired and sought, first and foremost by the school board, and then on each and every ACPS front.
And for those who still may not get my message – the plain truth is that business practices and support operations are integral to educational and social/emotional reform and sufficiency that delivers a wholly successful school system. They go hand in hand, and one cannot exist without the other.
A paradigm shift must occur, assuring you of a long-range and sustainable commitment with time to implement change. Or else, when the next big thing or person comes along, ACPS will react once again and continue to suffer endless and repeated disruptive change.
Who loses in that scenario?
For proof, you need look no further than the robust essential services and operations that were and are very much in the forefront, as a partner to online learning, of ACPS’ COVID-19 response. These same services and expertise are fundamental to other important looming decisions, such as how to deliver and support:
- A Continuity of Learning reopening plan of schools with new social distancing rules;
- Clean and healthy environments;
- Flexible transportation, food and nutrition solutions;
- State compliance requirements.
All of these are necessary to protect your children and create environments and experiences that are ripe for learning, while ACPS also continues to envision, renovate and rebuild new schools already planned and the new environments yet to be defined for the system’s future of learning.
So, I end this letter to the citizens of Alexandria, to my exasperated staff who have told me “we were just getting started,” and my dedicated colleagues as I began – with an apology acknowledging that what I believed could be realized was misleading and cannot, in actuality, be delivered.
My parting wish for you and for ACPS is that policies be instituted that prohibit the merry-go-round of short-term, and short-sighted, program changes. Processes need to encourage and require that business structures support longer-term improvement programs and goals, including those desperately needed to transform the ACPS Department of Facilities and Operations.
I have appreciated and enjoyed the honor of serving the citizens of the City of Alexandria and bid you all farewell.
The writer is the former chief operating officer for Alexandria City Public Schools.