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After release of District’s org chart, questions still remain

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

To Lori Shorr, among the most interesting things about the PSD’s long-awaited organizational chart is the expiration date stamped on top: “Through January 2, 2013.”

That reminds Shorr, who is Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, that when it comes to internal organization, the District remains very much in wait-and-see mode. New Superintendent William Hite is in the midst of what officials call his “90-day review,” after which he is expected to establish specific priorities for his administration, which may include additional internal reorganization.

“If he’s going to do big organizational change, he’s going to do it in January,” Shorr said.

But the new chart is welcome nonetheless, she said – the district had gone “years, literally” without one. “For a while there, nobody knew who was reporting to whom,” Shorr said.

Even an interim chart clarifies some key aspects of the new Hite administration, she said, including the central role of new Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn. According to the chart, almost all senior administrators handling day-to-day school concerns will report to Kihn’s office, including the chief of student services, the chief of family and community engagement, and the chief academic officer (who is in turn responsible for the assistant superintendents who oversee individual schools).

That means Kihn is quite clearly Hite’s second-in-command, Shorr said. On paper, it’s a role similar to that played by the now-departed Leroy Nunery under former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. How Kihn will handle the role in practice and how Hite will direct him to manage communication and collaboration among the seven chiefs who answer to him remain to be seen, Shorr said.

Among those watching closely will be Robert McGrogan, head of the principals’ union, Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, Teamsters Local 502. In Hite, McGrogan sees an experienced, savvy public official who has looked comfortable in his new role, communicating effectively in many contexts. But he thinks Kihn faces a steep learning curve when it comes to the complex web of responsibilities and personalities that he must now manage. The new deputy has classroom and administrative experience, but most recently worked as a consultant with McKinsey & Co.

“At meetings I’ve been at, he’ll say, ‘I’m telling you this [proposed idea] right now – what’s your reaction?’” McGrogan said. “That’s not how I operate. We need some time to think things over.”

Among Kihn’s most important responsibilities, McGrogan said, will be ensuring that the assistant superintendents, under the chief academic officer, are effectively and appropriately addressing individual school issues. McGrogan worries about the capacity of those assistants.

“I say this with all due respect, but some of these assistant superintendents are people who don’t have a whole lot of in-school experience,” he said. “I really think that some decisions [affecting individual schools] are being made in haste.”

James “Torch” Lytle, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and former leader of the Trenton school district, agrees that the assistant superintendents will play a critical role that will in turn depend on effective communication between Kihn, the chief academic officer, and the other senior leaders. Hite’s new chart shows the District’s many responsibilities neatly lined up under various chiefs. But on paper, it’s not entirely clear how information and requests from schools will move through those chiefs’ domains, Lytle said.

“It’s schools that matter. And if I’m a principal and I look at this chart, I’m not sure where I fit,” Lytle said.

If, for example, an assistant superintendent (reporting to the chief academic officer) hears complaints about an individual school’s safety issues, how will the information make its way to the Office of School Safety (reporting to the chief of student services)? “The way the chart is set up, it looks very hierarchical – there’s not a lot of cross-wise movement,” Lytle said.

Shorr said she wouldn’t expect to see the solution to that kind of communication question laid out in an organizational chart. It will be up to Hite to instruct his staff in how to facilitate cabinet-level communication and move information through the new structure, she said. “That’s management. This [chart] is about lines of authority,” she said.

And when it comes to Kihn’s role as the linchpin of that management, she agrees that he faces a challenge but has confidence that he can succeed. “I’ve been in meetings with him. I think he shows amazing judgment,” Shorr said.

McGrogan said that he’s prepared for continued changes in the District’s structure and will be watching closely to see what the new year brings.

“It’s like the airplane is in flight and we’re building it,” he said. “We’re also doing this while we’re talking about large numbers of school closures,” he added, which could lead to more changes in central administration.

Lytle said he, too, will be watching to see what develops, particularly in light of the fact that so many senior administrators have left and so many big questions about hiring, budgets and planning remain.

“A real challenge for Hite is, how much institutional knowledge will you really have? Especially after [Chief Academic Officer] Penny Nixon leaves for her sabbatical,” Lytle said. Nixon’s leave is scheduled to begin Nov. 1.

Lytle also noted that there is as yet no chief financial officer to replace Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen, who is due to depart at the end of November.

"With school closings, teacher contract negotiations, charter school expansion … and with a sharp decrease in school-level resources, how do you improve student achievement and survive as a district?” asked Lytle. “Even Superman would feel challenged. So my sympathies are with Dr. Hite.”

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