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New superintendent takes district reins

By Ben Lumpkin
Thursday August 02, 2001

For Michele Lawrence, Berkeley’s new superintendent of schools, Wednesday morning was a watershed of sorts: an eagerly awaited dining room table was delivered to her new Berkeley home. 

“I’ve got a bed to sleep in and, now, a table to eat on,” said a well-satisfied Lawrence, who confessed that she’d been eating breakfast and dinner from a card board box since she moved up from Los Angeles County earlier this month.  

Lawrence served as superintendent of the Paramount Unified School District for 10 years before accepting the Berkeley post this spring. 

Two weeks into the Berkeley job, Lawrence has taken advantage of a time when most parents, students, teachers and school board members are away on vacation to pour over school district documents and get up to speed on critical issues.  

She’s visited a number of school sites and met with principals and district department heads. She’s met with a range of Berkeley groups involved in public education, including citizen advisory committees that support the school board, groups who work with Berkeley schools’ organic gardens, the Parents of Children of African Descent group at the high school, the League of Women Voters, the Berkeley Alliance, the mayor and the chief of police. 

“I’m trying to evaluate where I need to start first and what impedes progress,” Lawrence said. 

But the new superintendent has wasted no time in getting a central message across to the district’s central office staff and others: the message that the Berkeley Unified School District, as an organization, has serious internal problems that must be fixed quickly if Berkeley schools are to get the support they need. 

Some of the most basic services for which schools rely on the central office – educational materials, budget and assessment information, and the maintenance and repair of equipment and facilities - are in critically bad shape, Lawrence said, echoing the concerns voiced by many school board members in recent months. 

“As a result, there seems to be frustration with every group I’ve been meeting with about the district’s ability to respond to their needs,” she said. 

Lawrence is already hard at work on some preliminary measures for addressing these issues. After visits to some Berkeley schools, notably the high school, Lawrence is assigning maintenance crews to give “filthy” rooms a thorough going over before class begins Aug. 29.  

Under a bond measure passed in November, the school district will see its annual maintenance budget more than double to $3.8 million. Lawrence expects to oversee the hiring and training of several new maintenance workers this fall to significantly bolster the maintenance support available to schools. 

“You can’t have a crew go in and fix the school and then allow it to go back and deteriorate,” Lawrence said. “We have to have an ongoing process for routine cleanup and maintenance.” 

In the central office, Lawrence said nothing short of a reorganization the staff was needed to help implement greater accountability. Rather than having one manager oversee a large number of employees, as happens under the current system, there needs to be more managers, Lawrence said – each with a relatively narrow focus of responsibility. 

“That’s a more tightly structured system, so there is a direct link between evaluation and performance,” she explained. 

Cathy James, associate superintendent for support services, is leaving the district at the end of this summer at after 11 years. But, until she leaves, she is working closely with Lawrence to help her settle in.  

James said the new superintendent is a quick study and wastes no time communicating her expectations to staff. 

“It’s really hard to come into an organization that’s this complex and kind of get what all the nuances are,” James said. “I think that she’s very candid with people about what she’s thinking and what her approach is.” 

Lawrence has struck a firm but supportive tone when communicating her concerns to central office staff, James added. Her style has been not to point the finger at any individual but to encourage the whole staff to join in a massive effort to turn things around, she said. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done, and that’s a little bit intimidating. But I don’t think anybody’s objecting to the goal,” James said. “Some of us flinch because we know that (the criticisms are) true. A lot of it is stuff that we are all frustrated about.” 

James warned, however, that, at least in the budget area, much of the difficulties with providing information in the past year were caused by the double curse of staff turnover and an old, dysfunctional data processing system. The district has been battling to replace the system since last year, James said – but the battle is not yet won.  

Lawrence said one of the central office staff’s top priorities this fall must be to improve the quality and organization of information – budgetary or otherwise – provided to school board members prior to their biweekly meetings. By cutting out a lot of the guess work for board members, Lawrence hopes to help them get right to the heart of matters that come before them. 

“It’s the staff’s responsibility to make certain that we are providing the board with the information necessary to make an informed decision, rather than one than is a response to emotions projected at a board meeting,” Lawrence said. “Rather than argue about whether the figures are accurate you ought to be arguing about where you’re putting your priorities.” 

An added bonus, said Lawrence, could be shorter board meetings. While Berkeley school meetings often run from 7:30 p.m. until 1 a.m. the following morning, Lawrence’s board meetings at Paramount were almost always over by 10 p.m., she said. 

“I really admired and enjoyed watching the democratic process in probably it’s purest form,” Lawrence said of her first experience at a Berkeley school board meeting last month. “But I wonder if you can actually do the district’s business at (1 a.m.). 

“We might just want to start with the target that (meetings) should end on the same day that they start.”