Clifford B. Janey, the District's new school superintendent, said yesterday that he is considering closing underutilized schools, giving students more time to graduate and hiring a private company to temporarily run such operations as facilities, purchasing and food service.
Janey, the school system's fifth permanent leader in nine years, mentioned those possibilities during a wide-ranging discussion with reporters and editors of The Washington Post. He cautioned that improvement will not come quickly to the long-troubled system, and he was unsparing in his assessment of its deficiencies.
"I've been enormously disappointed in the lack of sound management policies," he said, adding that he was particularly upset about the shabby condition of many school buildings and the inefficient operation of food services. "There will be some dismissals in response to some of these audits that have just painfully pointed to irresponsible actions on the part of certain staff."
No decisions have been made, but the dismissals are likely to affect mid-level managers, Janey said, adding that blame is sometimes unfairly assigned to the lowest- and highest-ranking employees instead of the managers with direct responsibility for operational failings.
He said he would consider contracting out "those operations that affect the quality of life of students" until the school system's "internal capacity" to run those operations is improved.
Janey, 58, said the school system has suffered from "a series of false starts" over the past decade, with the constant turnover in the superintendency being only the most extreme example. He said he has noticed a "deep sense of despair among a wide range of parents, constituents [and] advocates" and wants to hold a citywide education summit this fall or winter, at which residents can express their opinions on the schools.
"I was not coming here with any false sense of hope and any delusions," he said, adding that it could be four to six years before improvements are noticeable.
Janey praised the Board of Education, which voted unanimously in August to hire him, saying its members have "stayed out of my way" and given him time to assess the system's needs. He said that nepotism and cronyism are "alive and well" in the school system and that he is determined to avoid any political pressure about whom to hire or what contracts to award.
A former reading teacher who rose to become a top education official in his native Boston and in Rochester, N.Y., Janey focused most of his comments on the need to improve academic performance.
He reiterated his desire for the District to adopt learning standards used in California or Massachusetts rather than develop "hybrid" guidelines. He described the need for a core curriculum and greater uniformity in what students study. He also said he would consider establishing high school graduation exams.
Raising a subject that is not often discussed, Janey said he is considering making the grade structure across the city's roughly 150 public schools more uniform. Currently, some schools cover pre-kindergarten through third grade, for example, while others start at pre-K and end at eighth or ninth grade. And the system has middle schools -- which start at fifth or sixth grade and end at eighth grade -- as well as junior high schools, which range from the seventh to the ninth grades.
In Rochester, where he was superintendent from 1995 to 2002, Janey received national attention for allowing students to finish high school in three or five years rather than the standard four, and Janey said yesterday that he would consider implementing a flexible graduation system in the District. He also said he favors a midyear assessment of student performance, starting in January, in addition to the standardized tests administered to all students each spring.
He called for raising teacher certification standards and said he is likely to push for new clauses in the next teachers' contract to hold them more accountable for student performance. Regarding relations with principals, he said they need more authority over hiring teachers but may have too much leeway in determining curriculum.
Janey described student achievement as "a shared responsibility" and cautioned against setting unrealistic or unfair expectations. "When it goes poorly, it's not just a function of the superintendent not doing his job or the Board of Education not doing its job."
Janey said he would consider shutting schools that have low or declining enrollment and in some cases sharing the buildings with space-strapped charter schools, which have soared in popularity since they were first authorized in 1995.
He said he would like to use some of the buildings to create "parent education centers" that would offer classes on effective parenting and information on special and bilingual education and other services.
He also questioned the $8 million that he said is paid annually in rent for the school system's central offices at 825 North Capitol St. NE. "I'm hard-pressed to look my teachers and principals in the face when my office looks like a hotel room," he said. "It's a painful contradiction."
Janey said he favored collaboration with charter schools, calling them potential allies, rather than opponents, in the city's goal of quality education for all. "We shouldn't create a new civil war," he said.