Report on schools administration spurs changes

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May 9, 2011
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
// Superintendent plans to hire for key positions, review two departments//

A consultant’s report on Minneapolis Public Schools leadership spurred Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson to announce some immediate changes within her administration in April.

Johnson will recruit for two key positions: a new associate superintendent who will focus specifically on underperforming schools; and a deputy superintendent who will help manage day-to-day operations. Johnson also announced an “in-depth review” of the district’s human resources and finance departments as part of a broader reorganization of departments and divisions.

At a cost of $13,000, the report prepared by Robert Schiller, a former Illinois state superintendent, lays out a roadmap for Johnson to reshape district administration in her image nine months after her promotion to the district’s top job. Johnson emphasized that reorganization would help her focus on her primary goal: improving academic performance in schools.

“For me, it is about moving the district to a different level,” Johnson said.

After talking with district administrators, staff and School Board members, Schiller identified “dysfunctional aspects” within district headquarters “characterized by uneven or unsuccessful implementation of district-wide initiatives, poor service delivery and execution, uneven accountability, and a lack of clarity with regard to roles and communications.”

Schiller noted a lack of communication and cooperation between departments, described as isolated in “silos,” and described district employees as weary of “top-down” initiatives not seen through to their conclusions. The findings rang true for School Board Member Rebecca Gagnon.

“Honestly, I think it wasn’t a big surprise to some people,” Gagnon said. “And if it was a big surprise it’s because people don’t want to look in the mirror and realize we’ve been stuck in this rut for a while.”


A too-busy leader


Schiller’s report includes praise for Johnson’s “personality and charisma” and notes she “is respected for her efforts, many talents, and her transformational style of leadership.”
But he also spoke with district employees who “expressed concern about the Superintendent spreading herself too thinly and not being focused,” a comment that did not surprise anyone interviewed for this story — including Johnson.

“I knew that,” she said. “Everybody who knows me knows that.”

School Board Chair Jill Davis said she supported the decision to hire a deputy superintendent who would act as a second-in-command or chief operating officer for the district.

Schiller added Johnson’s failure to fill the district’s vacant Chief Academic Officer position — a position Johnson once occupied — led to the perception she was trying to do both jobs simultaneously, putting additional strain on her busy schedule.

Johnson said that position “will be filled by the end of June, for sure,” adding she came close to filling it months ago, but her candidate backed-out at the last minute.


A focus on ‘turnaround’ schools


The district currently employs three associate superintendents, each of whom works closely with principals in one of the district’s three geographic regions. Following Schiller’s recommendation, Johnson will add a fourth whose portfolio will include the underperforming “turnaround” schools from all three areas.

Johnson said she instructed associate superintendents at the beginning of the year to spend more time in school, but added they, like her, were finding themselves too busy.

Stan Alleyne, executive director of district communications, said the new associate superintendent position, and any others created in the restructuring, would require the district to shift or eliminate existing positions.

“This is a reorganization and a restructuring, so we don’t anticipate any extra costs,” Alleyne said.


Problem areas


While Schiller’s report likely will lead to broader changes within the administration — not just new hires, but shifts in who reports to whom — Schiller wrote his interviews turned up two “chief problem areas.” The divisions of human resources and finance were seen as offering low levels of customer service and also lacking the tools required to operate consistently and effectively.

Johnson said the district already was making strides in both areas before Schiller visited the district in January, and would continue to work on improvements.

“There’s a little sensitivity from people because they feel like there’s no recognition [of] what was the condition and what it is [now],” she said.

Johnson, Davis and Gagnon all noted many of the issues identified in the Schiller report — the “silos” separating departments and staff and the perception of a “top-down” culture among them — were issues the superintendent inherited. And while there are various root causes, turnover in the district’s top job over the past 10 years has been a significant factor, they said.

“When you have consistent turnover in leadership, in roles, you start to slip a little bit,” Johnson acknowledged.

Now that Johnson has a roadmap for change, many are waiting to see where she will lead the district.

“The real story is: Are you going to address [the problems]?” Gagnon said. “And not just by changing people from one position to another but, really, deep down, address the issues.

“I hear that from [Johnson], but I’m anxious to see it.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com.