More of the Same for Ann Arundel Schools?
On July 1, 2014, George Arlotto officially took office as superintendent of the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS). Arlotto ran for the position promising to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Kevin Maxwell, who left AACPS to take over the Prince George’s County public schools. Arlotto was Maxwell’s chief of staff.
As our daily newspaper, The Capital, summarized Arlotto’s political strategy for winning, he promised to “keep the school system consistent with current practices.” Arlotto’s credible commitment to being a Maxwell clone led me to predict his victory weeks before the Board of Education publicly announced his appointment.
Alas, I wasn’t a Maxwell fan. I admired Maxwell’s mastery of PR and politics. He knew how to get his message out and intimidate and marginalize critics. In recent decades, no AACPS superintendent was more successful in creating a lackey culture among parents and education reporters. His understanding of how to dispense patronage, albeit of a nonmonetary sort, reminded me of one of the great 19th century urban political bosses.
AACPS is the 54th largest school district by student enrollment in the United States; Prince George’s County the 21st. Both have operating budgets of over $1 billion per year.
Explaining Maxwell’s Success
In building up an effective public relations and patronage apparatus, Maxwell had some noteworthy advantages over his predecessors.
One advantage was the shift in 2007 to a bizarre system of appointing AACPS school board members—the only one of its kind in the United States among close to 14,000 public school districts—that gave AACPS staff a veto on the nomination of school board candidates (see Big Surprise at Meeting to Select New AACPS School Board Members for my most recent account of this electoral system in practice).
Maxwell was appointed superintendent in 2006. Another advantage was the economic downturn in 2008 and its effect on newspaper coverage. The downturn effectively ended Washington Post and Baltimore Sun coverage of AACPS, which, in any case, was on the fringe of their news coverage areas. The remaining daily newspaper, The Capital, was put up for sale about the same time by its owner, privately held media conglomerate Landmark Media.
Landmark Media’s instructions to The Capital seem to have been to squeeze out every possible drop of operating margin from Anne Arundel County to both bolster the newspaper’s sales price while sending money back to its Forbes 400 multi-billionaire owners. (The newspaper was finally sold to the Baltimore Sun in early 2014; see On Landmark Media (the Capital’s Owner) Cashing Out).
The education reporting was especially badly hit, with the newspaper effectively outsourcing its education reporting to AACPS. The AACPS PR office has a budget more than ten times larger than the Capital’s education reporting budget and is led by a former Capital editor. Distinguishing between an AACPS press release and a Capital article became difficult.
The Well-Oiled AACPS PR Machine
Will Arlotto be able to master and implement the subtle arts of intimidation and PR that came so naturally to Maxwell? The higher editorial standards of the Capital’s new editor, Steve Gunn, and its new owner, the Baltimore Sun Media Group (a subsidiary of Tribune Company), may pose at least a minor obstacle.
But the AACPS PR machine remains well-oiled and effective. Consider the news report covering Arlotto’s appointment on WBALTV11, a major Baltimore TV station that covers Anne Arundel County:
Parent groups are also pledging to support the new school superintendent. “I think it really helps in working with someone you have already sort of established some relationships, now we can just improve of those relationships,” said Pam Bukowski, president of the Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs.
“As a community member, a parent and a PTA leader, I look forward to collaborating with Dr. Artlotto and be able to help all kids in the county,” said Lisa Shore, a parent. The two individuals the TV station chose to interview were the two PTA representatives on the community panel that privately interviewed the superintendent candidate finalists.
Let’s assume that these two individuals are absolutely wonderful, hardworking people, which I think they are. It was nevertheless misleading to imply, albeit subtly, that they had undivided loyalties as parent representatives. Both were either AACPS employees or spouses of AACPS employees.
For example, in addition to serving as the president of the AACPS PTA and a PTA representative on the superintendent community panel that interviewed the superintendent candidates in secret, Bukowski was one of ten directors for the teachers’ union and in 2014 ran for both vice-president of the teachers’ union and Maryland representative to the national teachers’ union conference.
Among Bukowski’s other duties as a parent representative, she is the PTA representative on the Countywide Citizens Advisory Committee (which represents parents) and the PTA representative on the 11 member School Board Nominating Commission that selects school board members.
The Clever PR Lowballing of Arlotto’s Compensation
The release of Arlotto’s compensation deal with AACPS was also masterfully executed. When the Board of Education voted to hire Arlotto and the story was front page news, no details of Arlotto’s compensation were publicly released. When they were released a month later, they were accompanied by a detailed spreadsheet explaining why Arlotto’s compensation was substantially less than Maxwell’s.
The press release said that Arlotto would earn $245,000/year compared to Maxwell’s $257,000, and the story, a lightly rewritten version of the press release, was covered in the back pages of the newspaper. Now it used to be in Anne Arundel County that if you asked for a copy of the superintendent’s contract, which is a public record under the Public Information Act, you could be stopped by an AACPS security guard and grilled as to why you wanted to see such a document and what your attitudes were toward the superintendent.
Indeed, that and worse is what happened in 2000 when the Maryland Delaware and D.C. Press Association (MDDC Press) did a survey on public school district compliance with the Public Information Act regarding public access to superintendent contracts and sent a reporter incognito to AACPS headquarters to get a copy of the AACPS superintendent’s contract. Of the surveyed school districts, 40% denied access to the superintendent’s contract.
Nowadays, AACPS is much more sophisticated in how it effectively hides the contract information. It makes the contract publicly available. The trick is that there is less and less useful information in the actual contract. In terms of being a self-contained complete contract, Maxwell’s contract may have been a paragon compared to Arlotto’s (for my commentary on Maxwell’s compensation, see my back cover commentary in Education Week, America’s Million-Dollar Superintendents).
Arlotto’s contract refers you to lots of other contracts and assumes an extraordinary amount of background information to figure out what is really going on. There is no overt lying here, yet the overall effect is remarkably misleading.
So how much was Arlotto really being paid? Using accrual rather than cash accounting methods, I had previously estimated at least $500,000/year (see Is the AACPS School Board Embarrassed by the Incoming Superintendent’s Compensation?).
Governments use cash accounting; businesses use accrual accounting. Accountants and economists believe accrual accounting is more accurate. But accrual accounting is hard for the public to understand; most people balance their checkbooks using cash accounting. But even using a modified cash accounting estimate it’s possible to see that the $245,000 figure was low-balled.
It excludes the hyper-complex leave and retirement pension accounting that has become so crucial to obfuscating AACPS employee compensation. Arlotta’s 27 days of paid annual leave, should he choose to cash them during FY2015 (which he won’t, because they are much more valuable if cashed in later), are worth an annual bonus of approximately 10.4% ($25,480). (Note that paid annual leave, which is in addition to a half dozen other types of leave, is designed for an AACPS superintendent essentially as a pure bonus.)
He gets $20,000 for his defined contribution pension(something that was noted in the AACPS press release) and another 15.47% ($41,843) as an employer contribution to his defined benefit pension, which, like other administrators, is based on the teachers’ pension plan. The latter number is a misleadingly low estimate because most AACPS employees never see these employer contributions.
The formula is way too complex to present here, but basically, if new teachers leave before five years (about half do, partly because AACPS policy treats them so poorly), these employer contributions actually end up benefiting others, and if they leave before age 55, they must still give up 42% of their retirement benefit to the more senior participants in the plan. The result is that a lot of the employer contribution that appears on paper to go to junior AACPS staff actually go to senior AACPS staff such as Arlotto.
We’ll also exclude from the analysis the generous insurance benefits, including health (for life), dental, vision, term life, and disability; the various reimbursements, including car (an automatic payment of $8,400/year), home office (smartphone, computer, printer, Internet service, etc.), and professional improvement (dues, conferences, etc.); and 13 days/year of sick leave, which can be converted into pension benefits (worth about $560/day or $7,280/year in present value terms using accrual methods). A lot of the complexity and obfuscation is directed at the fine art of boosting final compensation for the purpose of maximizing lifetime pension earnings.
The goal of accrual accounting is to make it impossible to play “Hide The Compensation,” a game at which AACPS has become world-class. (To be fair, our county councilors and representatives to the General Assembly, both Democratic and Republican, are also no slouches at playing this game.) Even after these exclusions, which are fiercely negotiated as part of “the total compensation package,” we get an effective annual compensation package worth well over $330,000.
That number would not only have been a much harder sell to the public but also undercut the gazillion of arguments contained in the AACPS press release explaining why the Board of Education had been extraordinarily fiscally conservative in the compensation package it offered Arlotto.
Maxwell’s Abuses Not To Mimic
So let’s say Arlotto effectively mimics Maxwell. In addition to Arlotto’s political skills, that means he’ll be a highly skilled administrator. But to what end? How will he balance the interests of the children he claims to serve with the interests of others?
Political and administrative skills are means, not ends. For example, history is full of dictators who were highly skilled politicians and administrators but used those skills to pursue wars and other projects with devastating effects on their citizens. I’ve written elsewhere about Maxwell’s abuses of power (e.g., see Maxwell’s Political Legacy: Not Pretty).
I’ll highlight just a few here. The takeaway shouldn’t be all negative. My basic sense is that Arlotto is a practical man. If democratically accountable school board members were elected and the press did its job, Arlotto would temper these abuses. Maxwell may have been obsessed with power and the suppression of public dissent, but he was also eminently realistic in what he could get away with.
Maxwell mistrusted parents and rigged the organizations that were supposed to represent the parents to be his representatives instead. Analogous co-optation of representative institutions by ruling elites is common in pseudo democracies throughout the world, but its implementation in AACPS was startling, partly because of the community’s claimed commitment to patriotism and democratic values. (Anne Arundel County has one of the largest concentrations of military and intelligence personnel anywhere in the country.)
Astute parents observed Maxwell’s intolerance of public criticism and were terrified that engaging in such criticism might endanger the educational success of their most precious possession, their children. Our County’s political leaders took remarkably little care to prevent this type of anti-democratic, anti-first amendment culture from thriving within AACPS.
Maxwell gave too much power to the AACPS PR office and fostered a culture where all requests for potentially controversial information had to go through the PR office, a bottleneck and very intimidating process for many citizens, especially if they knew how the PR office actually worked. As it was good PR, the office was designed to inhibit the disclosure of controversial public records. And thanks to the many loopholes in the Public Information Act, it is relatively easy to do so for those willing to ignore the spirit, if not the letter, of the Act.
Maxwell wanted parents to follow the written rules but simultaneously wanted to give his staff the discretion to ignore them whenever they were inconvenient. A classic example was the student grading policy, which was rewritten under Maxwell (and Arlotto) to intimidate parents with seemingly objective guidelines while giving administrators leeway to do essentially whatever they wanted. Maxwell avoided risky, open ended, public Q&A with parents and wouldn’t let his employees respond to parental questions in a public forum if a recording device not under his control was present.
Perhaps every politician would like similar image control, but to maintain public support most senior public officials find themselves forced to accept a greater degree of relatively uncontrolled public participation. Given the extraordinary power of an AACPS superintendent and his staff, this shielding from democratic accountability should be a concern. (Much of the superintendent’s power derives from Board of Education promises to the superintendent and his staff, including from the current president of the Board, not to micromanage AACPS, asserting that their only job is to hire and fire the superintendent. Even this may overstate the Board’s powers, as Maryland law guarantees a superintendent a four year contract, assuming good conduct.)
Maxwell avoided serious internal audits to detect waste, fraud, and abuse. He learned from his predecessor, Superintendent Eric Smith, who conducted such an audit, that it wouldn’t be rewarded by the public and press and could be turned against him. But without the stomach to conduct serious audits, one creates an environment where petty corruption can thrive.
If there were ever a poll of the public’s satisfaction with the Superintendent and Board of Education, I wonder what it would show. Congress currently has a 13% approval rating within the United States while Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has an 80% approval rating within Russia.
Despite our first amendment, my reading of the international press is that there is far more public criticism of Vladimir Putin within Russia than there is of AACPS leadership within Anne Arundel County. (Note that this is not a per capita observation: Russia has more than three hundred times the citizens of Anne Arundel County and a budget thousands of times larger).
Clearly, the reasons for this lack of public criticism are very different within Russia and AACPS (Putin would probably burn with envy if he knew how easy it was to intimidate and co-opt middle class American parents who want the best for their own children).
I don’t think the lack of criticism is because AACPS doesn’t have serious problems worthy of public debate. I think it’s because the community has allowed the creation of a thriving environment for AACPS PR and parental intimidation.
I didn’t think it was possible for the PR culture at AACPS to become any stronger than it had become under Maxwell. But in one of his first steps in anticipation of taking office, Arlotto doubled down, granting his PR chief responsibility for his legislative and policy team. In vintage PR style, the restructuring was publicized and reported as a cost savings. Whether Arlotto will be able to attain Vladimir Putin’s sky high popularity rating remains to be seen.
But if he has learned his lessons well from Maxwell, I wouldn’t bet against it.
1) Snider, J.H., Will Incoming Anne Arundel County Schools Superintendent Arlotto Be A Maxwell Clone?, Watchdog Wire, July 7, 2014.
2) Snider, J.H., Will Incoming Anne Arundel County Schools Superintendent Arlotto Be A Maxwell Clone?, Anne Arundel Patch, July 8, 2014.