Falling Short in HR Management: An Auditor of School System Personnel Operations Pinpoints Three Areas Where Practices Don't Align with Mission
"I know exactly how each school in the district is doing, the performance of the finance department, curriculum, facilities and transportation. But frankly, I don't know how to evaluate HR or even what to expect."
This assessment from the superintendent at a suburban school district in the Pacific Northwest with 2,100 employees reflects the perception many superintendents have in trying to determine the effectiveness of their district's human resources operation.
The two fundamental questions each superintendent should ask are these:
• Does the department align human resources and management practices, policies and procedures with the school district's strategic objectives?
• Is the HR department maximizing its strategic contribution to the school district?
A school district's strategic objectives typically include improving education outcomes of students, reducing costs, improving customer service and increasing productivity. While the language, emphasis and order will vary, it is difficult to imagine a district that does not strategically focus on these or related objectives.
After performing human resource audits for school districts for the past 10 years in 21 states, I have found most districts perform well in payroll and benefits administration, employee recruitment and retention, and compliance with most state and federal regulatory requirements. However, the areas where most districts struggle to align policies, procedures and practices include (1) excessive retention of poorly performing employees; (2) ineffective use of available human resources information technology; and (3) inappropriate or misaligned performance measures.
Most school districts have clear policies and procedures delineated in collective bargaining agreements on performance expectations and criteria for termination for cause. It is the enforcement or application of the policies where improvement opportunities usually exist. A suburban district in northern Illinois that I audited had a human resources department express pride in the district 8-9 percent annual turnover rate.
Yet if you subtract retirements, spousal relocations, long-term illness and other voluntary terminations, less than 2 percent of the turnover resulted from cause due to substandard performance or egregious conduct. I know it is difficult to terminate tenured teachers. However, if we look only at pre-tenured teachers, those in their first two years in most places (though four years in Illinois), when the district typically has considerable contractual latitude to evaluate, intervene and/or terminate employment, the numbers don't change much.
In a sample of 20 school districts ranging in size from 600 employees to more than 20,000, the involuntary turnover rate for teachers in their first year or two was 2.8 percent. It is unlikely each of these districts was able to hire the best available applicant and have new teachers perform at or above district standards more than 97 percent of the time.
Symptoms that indicate underperforming teachers are not being identified and transitioned out of the district early in their tenure include internal transfers of teachers whom other principals do not want, minimal growth in education outcomes year over year and an ineffective performance evaluation process.
Many school districts require that internal transfers be placed first to fill openings, before outside recruiting can begin. Because of this policy, principals in one large Virginia system withheld notifying the personnel office about faculty vacancies for the next school year that they learned of in March. Instead, they began an informal recruitment process on their own or simply waited for the internal transfer period to pass. These principals would rather deal with a new hire than be required to bring on a problem teacher that another principal was trying to pass off. A spike in the number of openings announced in May and June might be a tip this is occurring.
This informal practice does not align well with district strategic objectives. The longer open positions are delayed from entering the recruitment process, the smaller the pool of top applicants, particularly in hard-to-fill positions such as special education, math and science. Personnel recruiters, hit with last-minute openings, face unnecessary urgency, which tends to increase recruitment costs and decrease efficiency.
Principals in the Virginia district who played by the rules, usually rookies, tended to end up with a disproportionate number of coasting, underperforming or otherwise recalcitrant teachers who had transferred internally. If seasoned, experienced principals have not been successful dealing with these teachers, rookie principals are even less likely to do so. This procedure reduces the incentive for principals to address these difficult management issues and facilitates problem employees just migrating around the district.
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