Audit: Too many paper pushers in Providence School Department

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Elorza administration should overhaul its school department to become more efficient and customer friendly as it seeks to improve educational outcomes throughout the district’s 39 schools, according to an audit released Monday.

The review, released a week after school Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi tendered her resignation, puts to rest a long-held myth that the central office at 797 Westminster Street is filled with overpaid administrators, but argues the department lacks the appropriate middle-management to support principals, teachers and parents in Providence.

“Fewer staff whose responsibilities revolve primarily around processing paperwork will be required at the central office and the district must build its capacity for human capital development, project management, and data analysis in order to support the core work of teaching and learning,” the audit states.

The report calls the central office “surprisingly lean” compared to similarly-sized New England school districts – only 8% of the department’s 3,617 employees actually work out of 797 Westminster Street – but notes that Providence has a disproportionate number of support staff and clerical workers, which contributes to the perception that the office is “bloated.”

The audit was conducted by Mass Insight Education, a Boston-based consulting firm that has worked with the school department since 2011. The firm’s review of the central office was part of a three-year, $1.8-million contract it signed with the city in 2014.

As it stands now, the central office has three support or clerical workers for every one of its professional staff, more than Hartford, Worcester and Springfield. The report notes that 30% of the all central office employees in Providence are members of the clerical workers’ union.

“This distribution of staff is a holdover from old ways of doing business,” the audit states. “Staffing practices have not been updated to account for new technologies, changing student and family needs, and new district goals and strategic priorities.”

Mass Insight recommends certain employees be reallocated to different positions to accommodate for the needs of the school department, but the report acknowledges those changes would likely have to be part of changes to collective bargaining agreements with Locals 1033 and 1339, the two unions that represent the bulk of support staff and clerical workers in the district. Both unions have contracts that expire later this year.Improvements needed on constituent response, human resources

Staffing aside, the audit says the district should create establish a constituent response team designed to “ensure that customers receive quick, responsive, and satisfactory resolutions to their concerns” as well as a change management team complete with project managers and policy analysts to oversee the transformation of the central office into a department that can better assist school leaders.

The audit also suggests the district’s human resources department needs a makeover to focus on talent development and retention so that employees are given the skills needed to advance within the school department and provide support to schools. Mass Insight recommends renegotiating union contracts to ensure that personnel decisions are driven by data rather than tenure.

“These findings are a call to action,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said in a statement. “Providence Schools must have a central administration designed to support our schools and engage our community, so we can raise academic achievement across the district. Our children and families deserve a school department that just works, and frankly, our future depends on it.”

Notably missing from the final draft of the audit is a price tag for the transformation of the central office. The review does offer three different timelines to implement its recommendations, ranging from a conservative approach that could take up to 10 years, a moderate approach that could span six years or a transformational approach that could be completed by the end of Elorza’s first term in office.

Mass Insight said it doesn’t believe the district “can fulfill its obligations to students, families, and citizens without pursuing a transformational approach,” but noted the aggressive timeline would require “political capital to achieve the policy and [collective bargaining agreement] changes that would make the full transformation possible.”

Lusi: Audit is a myth buster

The audit also stops short of criticizing Lusi, the popular superintendent who stunned local education observers by announcing her resignation on May 1, just months after Elorza extended her contract by a year. Lusi will remain in charge of the school department until the end of the school year.

“Until recently, PPSD was led by a talented leadership team that made significant progress in improving the system to benefit students,” the review states.

In a sit-down interview with WPRI.com Saturday, Lusi said she agrees with the bulk of the findings in the Mass Insight audit. She noted that many of the central office staffing challenges were highlighted in a 2011 report from the same firm.

“I consider this a myth buster,” Lusi said. “The myth is that the central office is top heavy.”

She said her leadership team has laid the foundation for a strategic policy aimed at providing individual schools more control over decision making. She said part of the process has been building out the department’s office of transformation and innovation while pushing more central office supports directly to schools. Now, Lusi said, it’s time to continue building the central office into “the central support office.”

“If we are going to have autonomy, you need to flip the role of the central office,” she said.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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