Tonight’s meeting of the Southbridge School Committee will address an issue that has drawn a lot of attention in recent days for a variety of reasons. The agenda item reads:
“Vote to reorganize the Middle and High School Administration to create a new position of Principal of Southbridge Middle/High School (job description attached), and three (3) Assistant Principals for Southbridge Middle/High School, thereby abolishing the current positions titled, Southbridge High School Principal, Southbridge Middle (Mary E. Wells) School Principal, High School Assistant Principal, and Middle (Mary E. Wells) School Assistant Principal/Dean of Students.”
The core issue is whether the new Southbridge Middle/High School will have one Principal with oversight of the entire school or two independent Principals – one for the Middle School and one for the High School.
The only cogent argument made thus far in the public forum (other than my contention that it is a matter of managerial decision making accountability) is that set forth by Brent Abrahamson. He has argued that in the event of a school-wide emergency it is essential to have a single authority responsible for crisis decision-making.
While this is unquestionably a necessary consideration it is hardly a sufficient justification for defining an administrative model for daily operations. If a crisis situation were the only justification for a single Principal it could be dispensed with by a titular designation from the school committee as to in whom such authority resides with the absolute authority to resort to it when deemed necessary. One does not design an organization chart to accommodate anomalies.
The real issue is which model, one or two Principals, makes the most sense from a management standpoint?
As I see it, the fundamental issue is a management principle termed span of control.
Span of control is a dimension of organizational design measured by the number of subordinates that report directly to a given manager. This concept affects organization design in a variety of ways, including speed of communication flow, employee motivation, reporting relationships, and administrative overhead.
There are a number of factors that come into play in determining an appropriate span of control for a given manager:
1. Job complexity. Subordinate jobs that are complex, ambiguous, dynamic or otherwise complicated will likely require more management involvement and a narrower span of management.
2. Responsibilities of the manager beyond oversight of subordinates. Such factors are membership on boards and committees, responsibilities to extra-organizational constituencies and volume of reporting requirements.
3. Similarity of subordinate jobs. The more similar and routine the tasks that subordinates are performing, the easier it is for a manager to supervise employees and the wider the span of management that will likely be effective.
4. Physical proximity of subordinates. The more geographically dispersed a group of subordinates the more difficult it is for a manager to be in regular contact with them and the fewer employees a manager could reasonably oversee, resulting in a narrower span of management.
5. Abilities of employees. Managers who supervise employees that lack ability, motivation, or confidence will have to spend more time with each employee. The result will be that the manager cannot supervise as many employees and would be most effective with a narrower span of management.
6. Abilities of the manager. Some managers are better organized, better at explaining things to subordinates, and more efficient in performing their jobs. Such managers can function effectively with a wider span of management than a less skilled manager.
7. Technology. Cell phones, email, and other forms of technology that facilitate communication and the exchange of information make it possible for managers to increase their spans of management over managers who do not have access to or who are unable to use the technology.
For the purposes of our considerations, the most relevant of these are the first two.
The Superintendent of the Southbridge School System currently directly oversees 5 school principals, a business manager, a director of special education, a director of curriculum instruction & assessment and a director of technology.
In addition he has demands on his time from the school committee and a wide variety of stakeholder constituencies as well as school and civic functions.
Thus the most compelling argument that favors the one principal position is that it would reduce one element in a span of control that clearly exceeds usual expectations for optimal performance.
Second, there is the realistic factor that, while the Middle/High School encompasses two distinctly different academic cultures, it is housed in one building. The two academic frameworks can be amply accommodated by the proposal for two subordinate deans reporting to the principal. What cannot be handled reasonably by two principals is the day to day management of a single physical plant that embodies a substantial public investment.
A final factor to be considered is the additional complexity that will arise in the coming months with newly mandated requirements for evaluation of professional personnel at all levels from teachers through the superintendent using Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education prescribed instruments as mandated under 603 CMR 35.00.
This mandate will add substantially to the workload of management personnel at all levels.
Given these factors, I am convinced that the proposal for a single Principal at the new Southbridge Middle/High School is based upon sound organizational and managerial considerations and I recommend its adoption.