Elorza school dept. overhaul moves clerks, adds new jobs

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Nearly nine months after an independent audit highlighted a slew of inefficiencies in the central office of the Providence School Department, Mayor Jorge Elorza is beginning to make changes.

During a Tuesday press conference at Nathan Bishop Middle School, Elorza said the city is moving 13 clerical workers out of the school department at 797 Westminster Street and into several schools while also adding between eight and 10 middle-management positions that will focus primarily on performance management and data analysis.

“We have answered the call to action and overhauled central administration to better support our students, parents, and schools,” Elorza said. “These changes bring central office into the 21st century and better enable the school department to meet the current and future needs of our public schools.”

Elorza said the department is also adding a multilingual call center for parents, an office that will essentially function as the education version of the center for city services office that works out of the first floor City Hall.

While no full-time employees are being laid off in the overhaul, several temporary clerical workers are being reassigned and more than a dozen vacant jobs within the school department are being eliminated. Elorza claims the changes will be cost-neutral for the department.

In May, an audit released by Boston-based consulting firm Mass Insight Education said the central office should have “fewer staff whose responsibilities revolve primarily around processing paperwork,” a recommendation that angered members of the Local 1339, the school clerical workers’ union.

The union, whose contract expired last summer, voted last week to support the school department changes, according to the mayor’s office. A new contract for the clerical workers is still being negotiated.

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

The audit also suggested the district’s human resources department should 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.

Flash forward to now: Chris Maher, who worked as president of Mass Insight as it prepared the audit, now serves as the interim superintendent of schools. Another former employee of the consulting firm, Nora Guyer, is working as a human resources officer in the district.

Maher said Tuesday the department changes will be fully implemented by the beginning the 2016-17 school year. He said he wants to set “internal performance metrics” for each office so progress can be measured.

“We say we want to hold our partners accountable, we say we want to hold our schools accountable,” Maher said. “Well, as a district, we should be held accountable as well,” Maher said.

Maher also said he wants to beef up human resources in order to expand diversity in the school department and establish a performance management unit within the with the district’s transformation office. He said the goal is to find better ways to track student performance.

“Change is never easy and this is a significant amount of change in a school district,” Maher said.

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Dan 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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