Tuesday, July 24, 2012

One Principal At Southbridge Middle/High? The Span of Control Issue

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.


  1. Good blog entry, Ken. A couple of things that I want to point out.

    The aspect of school safety is just one of the points I have addressed while considering the administrative structure of the new middle/high school. I have written several posts on this topic.

    I would not so lightly dismiss the security aspect as you seem to do here. Yes, of course, the Committee could designate one principal as the decision-maker. That could take care of the issue on paper, but does not account for what we know about human nature.

    Consider this scenario: An incident happens at school and principal number one (the designated "decider") informs principal number 2 of his intention to set the emergency plan in motion.

    Principal number two insists that principal number one is over-reacting. Principal number one thinks about it and concludes, "Well, maybe you're right." The decision to set the emergency plan in motion is canceled.

    Yes, the blame would go to the designated principal should a tragedy occur, but who would care at that point?

    But for a "paper designation" the two principals are absolutely equal in position and authority.

    If an emergency plan is set into motion and it is later perceived as unnecessary, it will come out that principal number 2 was against it. Then we get into the game of people thinking that perhaps principal number 2 is "cooler under pressure."

    I would rather have one principal (the highest person on the chain in the building) making a decision. I would rather have the principal err on the side of caution.

  2. Your logic on the safety issue is Panglossian. If there is a severe threat or safety issue in either of the two wings of the building, there would be no discussion and an emergency protocol would be activated. The idea that there would be a conference then why not add the Superintendent in the conversation and then s/he would be the ultimate decision-maker. In a safety or emergency situation the leader closest to the problem makes the decision --- and sometimes it may very well be a teacher....

    1. PANGLOSSIAN...interesting choice of words.
      When you look at one of the definitions; a panglossian is optimistic regardless of the circumstances. Or, to put it in the words of the optimistic Dr Pangloss, the philosopher and tutor in Voltaire’s Candide (1759), “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.
      According to Dr. Kathy McMahon, Psy.D who wrote an article about Panglossian behaviors called "Optimistic Even in the Face of Reality", she believes:
      The Panglossian View
      Borrowing Voltaire’s character Pangloss in his novel Candide, we might speak of a Panglossian Disorder as the belief that “all is well and everything in the world is for the best.” In adopting a Panglossian philosophy, Candide accepts situations and tries not to change or overcome obstacles. Instead, he passively accepts whatever fate has in store, and shrugs off his personal responsibilities.
      How does this apply to Southbridge and the prior regime? We do it this way, we did it this way, we've always done it this way... TD if you can't handle change, then get out!

    2. Some how when you read my statement you misinterpreted or inserted the word philosophy for the word logic. So let me explain my statement with a quote from Candide: "Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

      "It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best."" (http://www.literature.org/authors/voltaire/candide/chapter-01.html)

      You see in following Panglossian logic one would say that "there is but one building, therefore it must me one school .... accordingly we must have one principal.....

  3. Anonymous 8:53 AM.

    I certainly respect your opinion. Your assumption, and it is a very major one, is that a threat or safety issue would take place in one of the two wings. The most dangerous areas are the so-called common areas. The cafeteria is a good example, I think.

    I anticipated that my blog entry on the safety aspect would sound alarmist. I would only point out that every school district is certain that it "can't happen here." Until it does.

  4. Wait until you find out who Ely has chosen to run the new building. They have been "close" for some time now. Leadership? Good Luck!

    1. I can recognize a “provocateur” tactic by someone who knows nothing more than how to spread doubt and discord. Get specific or get a life.

  5. Who has he chosen?

  6. Ken, I guess the "provocateur" had it right! Who is this Tammy Perreault? Does she have any administrative experience? Does anyone know how "Close" she and Ely are?

    1. I got caught up in this rumor game once already. If you want to pursue it again, take it elsewhere.

    2. Not a rumor if it's true, she will be the principal and there probably couldn't be a worse choice (sans Bill). No experience as a principal, in the district as a math curriculum coordinator for 5 months, and no support of the people she is supposed to lead. I guess this is another great decision that will keep Southbridge a level 4 school, good luck with that. But hey, at least we have a new school with air conditioning.

  7. It is disappointing when grown adults regress back to grade school behavior. Just because you don't get your way, you don't start a rumor about someone. You certainly don't imply it on television and then say, "I'm sorry, I take it back.". It's too late, you already said it! It's already out there with no evidence, no source. That is extremely irresponsible behavior on Dr. O'Learys part.


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