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Defying Expectations: Jefferson Parish Public Schools (Part IV)

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Part IV: Strategic Planning: The final installment of a four-part series exploring the reform of the Jefferson Parish Public School System

JPPSS Superintendent James Meza turned to Mass Insight Education (MIE) for help in developing a plan that would help achieve his vision of a leaner, more decentralized school system focused on supporting schools. MIE’s collaboration with JPPSS focused on three main objectives, each of which involved a number of interrelated projects that helped put Jefferson Parish on a path to improvement:

  1. Redesigning and strategically staffing the central office, with a focus on improving instruction and learning in schools;
  2. Creating flexible operating conditions that the central office, school principals, and teachers need for success;
  3. Establishment of long-term structures, systems and processes needed to sustain school improvement.
The district's previous organization structure.

The district’s previous organization structure.

Conducting a diagnostic assessment was a critical first step in planning the broader district-wide reorganization effort. The diagnostic assessment examined the district’s departments, systems, and processes to identify gaps and areas-for-improvement in the JPPSS’ management and support structure. The assessment process first involved a thorough analysis of district data, including school performance indicators, central office staff allocations, and a breakdown of the budget. While the data analysis provided a good high-level snapshot, we also conducted in-depth interviews with 36 senior and mid-level central officials to gain a more comprehensive, nuanced understanding of JPPSS’ operations and culture.

Through the diagnostic assessment process, we were able to identify five areas-of-focus that were then used to inform the development of the district reorganization plan:

  • Right-size the Organization: Responsibilities at the central office often overlapped with the result that departments managed programs outside of their intended focus areas, while others spent considerable time and resources on non-essential responsibilities.
  • Provide Greater Support to Schools & Students: Multiple departments were providing professional development for schools, but these efforts were fragmented and interviews indicated an overall lack of communication and collaboration among support staff. In addition, performance data indicated the district had not been meeting the needs of its most challenged and high-risk students.
  • Focus on Data-Driven Strategies & Innovation: Departments and their staff members were not driving toward specific, measureable goals based on data and tied to broader district and state goals. Resources were directed to ineffective programs because there was no accountability for results. In interviews, staff often struggled to articulate and connect how their work impacted schools.
  • Transition from HR to Human Capital: It was clear that many problems stemmed from outdated and inefficient human resources practices. The district lacked a strong talent pipeline, and disciplinary and grievance procedures drained significant attention from Human Resources’ core responsibilities.
  • Ensure Efficient Operational and Financial Oversight: Previous audits of the district’s finances voiced concern that the oversight of various funds was distributed over several different departments. Furthermore, interviewees voiced a nearly universal frustration with the district’s current technology management system.

After considering the findings of the diagnostic assessment, we conducted a survey of the structures and strategies being used in other urban school districts to inform JPPSS’ reorganization plan. In particular, we drew upon research from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the leading organization in district portfolio management research, for ideas that could be adapted to the Jefferson Parish context.

Post-Reorganization structure in JPPSS.

Post-Reorganization structure in JPPSS.

Guided by the findings from the diagnostic assessment, as well as the strategies identified in the benchmarking survey, we developed a reorganization plan that recommended the closure, consolidation, and creation of several central office departments; proposed changes to delivery of various programs and services; and, recommended various changes in personnel. Finally, in light of a projected SY 2012-13 budget deficit, we conducted an analysis of the projected cost savings created as a result of the central office reorganization.

While an initial draft was presented to key members of Superintendent Meza’s leadership team for feedback, we turned our attention to district policies and regulations to align them with the changes incorporated in the reorganization plan. Toward this end, we created new organizational charts for each unit in the central office and updated job descriptions for all senior leadership positions. We also provided the Superintendent with an analysis of the board’s HR policies and recommended a series revisions to bring them into compliance with the significant changes passed by the Louisiana Legislature in Act 1 and Act 54.

When the reorganization plan was presented to the Jefferson Parish School Board in April 2012, it passed unanimously and thereafter the focus of MIE’s work shifted from planning to implementation. Superintendent Meza’s intention to shift a greater share of district resources to schools was reflected in the decentralized and streamlined central office structure delineated in the reorganization plan. This required a reduction in the number of positions in the central office, as resources were reallocated to schools. Mass Insight helped the district facilitate this process.

A summary of changes by focus area in the reorganization plan.

A summary of changes by focus area in the reorganization plan.

Finally, we planned and executed the recruitment and selection process to staff the district’s five Network Support Teams (NSTs). As part of the reorganization process, the district’s 80+ campuses were organized into five networks with the aim of providing a more responsive and integrated system of support for schools. Each network has its own NST, led by a Network Executive Director and composed of a cross-functional team of School Support Specialists who are directly accountable for the performance of the schools under their purview. While the type and intensity of this assistance varies according to the needs of the schools in each network, the work of the NSTs ultimately seeks to build the capacity of school-based staff through ongoing professional development of administrators and teachers.

Conclusion

In the course of just over two years, the Jefferson Parish Public School System implemented a series of bold reforms that established JPPSS as the most progressive and innovative school districts in Louisiana. These changes have put JPPSS on a new trajectory, and while Jefferson Parish certainly still has room to improve, overall academic performance in the district has steadily improved.

The transformation of JPPSS is also a powerful illustration of the ability of school districts – even large school districts – to “reform from within.” As Jefferson Parish’s experience shows, it requires a broad base of support in the community for change, a leader focused on the needs of students, and a strategy to reorient the organizational structure and culture on the district’s educational mission.

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog, In The Zone.

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

Louisiana

After Janus, The Drought? LAE & LFT are downplaying the impact of the Janus v. AFSCME decision, but both are subsidized by their national unions

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The United States Supreme Court handed public sector unions – including the teachers unions – a major defeat on Wednesday with their decision in Janus v. AFSCME, in which a majority of justices agreed that mandatory agency fee laws violate the First Amendment rights of non-union public employees.

In the 21 states with agency fee laws, public employees covered by collective bargaining agreements were required to pay fees to the union to cover bargaining costs, even if they refused to join. Because agency fees only offered a small discount when compared to union dues, many individuals felt compelled to become members.

Screenshot from Education Next.

Now that the Supreme Court has struck down those laws, many observers expect that public sector unions will lose anywhere from 10-30% of their members, and by extension, a big chunk of their revenues. In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, National Education Association (NEA) president Lily Eskelsen García admitted her union expects to lose at least 200,000 members over the next 18 months, depriving them of around $28 million in funding.

What about Louisiana?

Louisiana, of course, is a right-to-work state, meaning that public sector unions here are unlikely to see a drop in their membership, but the Janus decision could have a significant financial impact on the state’s two teachers unions, the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT).

In an article in The Advocate on Wednesday, officials from LAE and LFT sought to downplay the potential fallout from the ruling, insisting that any impact on their organizations would be minimal. They also wildly exaggerated the size of their respective unions, with both LAE and LFT claiming around 20,000 members.

LAE president Debbie Meaux and LFT president Larry Carter.

Mike Antonucci, a researcher who has been writing about teachers unions for decades, released figures on Wednesday showing that LAE had 10,461 members in 2016-17, of which only 9,416 were full dues-paying members. While precise numbers are not available for LFT, data from tax filings and public records requests show that the union receives far less in dues payments than their counterparts at LAE, while charging their members more on an annual basis. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that LFT is even smaller than LAE’s 10,000 members.

Those tax filings, along with annual reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, also reveal that both LAE and LFT are heavily subsidized by their national unions. According to tax returns, LAE reported $3,291,199 in revenue in F.Y. 2016, although Department of Labor reports show that nearly 30% of that money came from the National Education Association.

Data from IRS 990s and U.S. Department of Labor annual reports.

Likewise, LFT reported $1,809,239 in revenue in F.Y. 2016, but nearly 27% of that total came from its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Moreover, as I’ve noted in previous posts, AFT also provides substantial funding to its local affiliates, like the United Teachers of New Orleans, Jefferson Federation of Teachers, and Red River United.

Will the money dry up?

Up to now, LAE and LFT could depend on their national unions to provide a substantial portion of their annual budgets, but the Supreme Court’s decision this week means that steady stream of funding could begin to dry up in the not-too-distant future. While It’s unlikely that AFT and NEA will completely cut-off subsidies to their affiliates in right-to-work states like Louisiana, there’s no escaping the fact that there will be less money to go around.

How that will ultimately impact the activities of Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Federation of Teachers is yet to be seen.

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Louisiana

The Red River Ripoff Shreveport's AFT Affiliate Uses Bureaucratic Obstacles To Keep Dues Coming in

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Red River United (RRU), the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union representing educators in Caddo, Bossier, and Red River Parishes, is using bureaucratic hurdles and subterfuge in an attempt to prevent members from leaving the organization.

A reader forwarded me a series of emails regarding three of the union’s current members who submitted a union drop request to Red River officials in October, indicating that they wished to end their affiliation with RRU and stop the monthly deduction of dues from their bank accounts.

The sign outside Red River United’s offices in Shreveport.

The receipt of those forms was acknowledged by the union. Nevertheless, when the three teachers checked with their banks at the end of the month, Red River United had once again deducted dues payments from their accounts. On November 1st, an email was sent to RRU officials notifying them of their mistake and requesting that the union refund those dues to the three individuals.

An emailed response from RRU’s in-house counsel, Elizabeth Gibson, flatly refused to refund those payments, explaining that the three teachers “executed a confidential agreement with Red River United (Membership Form), wherein the individuals authorized Red River United, or its designee, to draft their bank account each month for the amount indicated in the agreement for each billing period.”

She continued:

“Further, they acknowledged that they must give at least 30 days written notice to Red River United to cancel future automated debits. Red River United did not receive written notice at least 30 days in advance personally from the individuals indicating they had chosen to cancel their automated debits/membership. They must physically come to the offices of Red River United to cancel the bank draft due to the confidential nature of the information contained therein. These individuals have not done so. Accordingly, they are not entitled to a refund of the monies they authorized to be withdrawn from their bank accounts.”

Gibson added that the teachers needed to physically go to the union’s offices to provide a so-called “wet signature” in the presence of a Red River United employee in order to officially withdraw from the union and stop the monthly bank withdrawals.

Gibson’s emailed response in which she refused to refund dues to the three teachers.

A ridiculous (and dishonest?) response

Gibson’s response is not only ridiculous, but possibly dishonest. It’s also clearly an attempt by Red River United to make it as difficult as possible for current members to dropout of the union.

To start, the union’s “confidential agreement” – i.e., RRU’s membership form – isn’t all that confidential (in fact, I’ve included a copy of it at the bottom of this post). Nowhere on the membership form does it say anything about the requirement to provide a “wet signature” in the presence of an RRU employee to leave the union and stop monthly payments.

The small print from Red River United’s membership form.

Moreover, Gibson’s contention that the three teachers needed to physically go to RRU’s offices to cancel the bank drafts “due to the confidential nature of the information contained therein” is laughable. Anyone who has ever had a subscription to a newspaper or magazine can tell you that you don’t need to go to their offices to cancel it. Plus, there’s nothing “confidential” about the process. All Red River United needs to do is notify their bank to stop the monthly automatic withdrawals for those three individuals. End of story.

So why is Red River United trying to make these three teachers jump through bureaucratic hoops when they clearly don’t want to be part of their organization anymore? I suspect the union is trying to force them to come to their offices so they can pressure them to remain members, which is the kind of behavior you might expect from a dodgy timeshare broker, not a teachers union.

Nevertheless, teachers unions in other states have increasingly employed similar tactics to stem the departure of their members. For example, after Michigan became a right-to-work state in 2012, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) changed their opt-out policy to mandate that teachers withdrawal in August and force them to send their resignation requests to an obscure P.O. box address hidden on their website. The union subsequently refused to honor opt-out requests that were sent directly to MEA headquarters or were received outside of the month of August.

The United States Supreme Court is set to decide Janus v. AFSCME this spring.

I expect that we’ll see even more of these sort of schemes in the coming months. In September, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case which argues that requiring public employees to pay agency fees to unions (including teachers unions) is unconstitutional. It is widely expected that the Court will end up striking down the laws in the 22 states that currently mandate agency fees, meaning that teachers unions across the country will soon be scrambling to come up with ways to keep their members from dropping out.

Because Louisiana has long been a right-to-work state, the Janus case should have little direct impact here. At the same time, that’s exactly why Red River United’s efforts to make it as difficult as possible for members to leave their organization needs to be called out. Louisiana’s public school teachers have the right to join a union or not. Therefore, they should be able to leave a union just as easily as they signed up. If Red River United wants to salvage some of its integrity, it should immediately accept the resignation of the three educators in question and refund their dues as soon as possible.


Read Red River United’s membership form:

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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana peterccook.com
Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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