Waste, bureaucracy, confusion get in the way of teaching
By Andy Gammill
When the superintendent brought in auditors to look at the Indianapolis Public Schools bus operation in December, the department couldn’t say how many routes it runs each day. Auditors had to guess.
When the school district tried to dismiss 14 administrators this year, it missed a deadline to notify the employees and now must pay their full salaries for another year.
Although the district struggles to hire teachers and is chronically short-staffed, it has 10,000 job applications that have never been reviewed.
That confusion and lack of oversight represent what may be the biggest challenge to the state’s largest school district as it continues efforts to reform.
Over the past three years, Superintendent Eugene White has tackled classroom shortcomings such as weak teaching and poor discipline. Now he has started to remake the crippling bureaucracy behind practices that are often inefficient, sometimes illegal and occasionally dangerous to children.
Others before him have tried, only to be defeated by a culture steeped in an attitude of “this, too, shall pass.”
“I’ve heard it ever since 1971 that I’ve been in IPS: ‘Just wait it out,’ ” said Jane Ajabu, the district’s personnel director. “Unfortunately, the people in the district have adopted the attitude of: ‘It’s mediocre, it’s ineffective, that’s just how it is.’ ”
Changing that kind of culture can be one of the hardest things any leader does, said Richard Cosier, dean of Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management and a scholar on organizational change. Because people have grown comfortable doing things the old way, reform is extremely difficult.
Large urban school districts are notoriously inefficient, and at least one measure suggests IPS may be worse than other Indiana districts. Its bureaucracy has an unusually high proportion of licensed educators working outside classrooms.
For every 53 students, IPS has one licensed educator working in a nonteaching job. Across the state, only Gary Public Schools has as high a ratio of administrators to students. Other Marion County districts have 86 to 156 students per licensed educator in a job outside the classroom.
Having so many teachers working as administrators, counselors, curriculum specialists, instructional coaches or assistant principals swells the bureaucracy even as student enrollment steadily drops.
White has called for a review of the number of teachers on special assignment. He also has overhauled the district’s computer security operation and has started to improve the human resources department. Soon, he plans to announce an overhaul of the bus program and a new organizational structure.
“We just can’t go on this way,” he said.
Several School Board members acknowledged the problems but said that inefficiency and waste were limited to certain departments and specific errors, and not a districtwide problem.
“They’re isolated incidents,” board member Clarke C. Campbell said. “Certainly they’re serious and need to be dealt with. But when you isolate four or five incidents, then you’re ignoring thousands of other opportunities for mistakes that weren’t made.”
Yet examples of bureaucratic problems abound at IPS, where 79 percent of its 35,000 students are poor and 9 percent are still learning English. Many of the problems hamper the basic functions of a district, including the hiring of good teachers, encouraging parental participation and wisely using money and educational tools.
The catalog of gaffes and missed opportunities is long and numbing.
A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Education reprimanded IPS for using Title I money designed to add programs for poor children to reimburse itself for what it would have done anyway.
The district shifted 17 administrators, teaching coaches and permanent substitute teachers into classroom jobs to comply with the federal order. Had it continued to violate federal law, the district would have had to forfeit about $1.4 million.
In the past, the district routinely had problems administering money under that federal law, White said, and often had to return money.
In February, the district moved to dismiss 15 administrators, some for poor performance and some because of budget cuts. The School Board approved White’s recommendation.
But 14 of the people affected (one has resigned) will keep their full administrative pay for another year because IPS did not notify them in time to cancel the contracts under state law.
“No one’s happy,” IPS spokeswoman Mary Louise Bewley said, “but these things happen.”
Other administrative gaffes have cost the district money.
In August, the Indiana Department of Education asked IPS to repay $274,000 after it discovered that its nine middle schools had held classes for 177 of the required 180 days.
A senior administrator had approved the calendar, mistakenly believing that the district could hold training for teachers on those extra three days.
“Someone should have known,” Purdue University education Professor James Auter said at the time, “and someone should have provided the leadership.”
A hiring quagmire
Despite a desperate need for qualified teachers, IPS had created a human resources system that defeated its hiring quest at every turn.
If a resume, college transcript or letter of recommendation arrived at the district office bearing a different name or Social Security number from the one on the application, it was set aside in a pile.
If an applicant missed filling out a part of the online application, it just sat there.
Human resources representatives did not review the files or call people for more information.
“It’s not lost,” human resources director Ajabu recently told the School Board. “We just don’t know what to do with it.”
She estimates that a backlog of at least 10,000 applications sits unreviewed in the district’s electronic human resources system. Some were started by people who stopped before filling out an entire form because they decided not to apply.
Others, though, were from job candidates who thought they had filled out the file but had left some blanks.
The hiring process ensures that the most persistent — not necessarily the best — candidates get jobs.
Ajabu, who took over as personnel chief in 2005, works hard to hire the best employees. But in the end, she was undermined by a “dysfunctional” system, Superintendent White said.
“Compared to three years ago, we have really improved a great deal,” he said. “But there are still things to do.”
Hiring is only one failure in the district’s HR department.
Ajabu was floored a few months ago when she read the list of IPS employees receiving sick pay.
On it was a teacher who had been dismissed months earlier. She had a signed settlement saying IPS owed her no more money. Yet the district had cut $3,600 in checks in her name after that.
Ajabu also found five teachers on leave from daytime teaching jobs because of illness who then took evening jobs in the district. They were being paid for both.
“Those are the kinds of loopholes, things that the past practices had allowed to happen . . . those type of things have been — I can’t say they’ve all been cleared up,” White said. “They’re unacceptable, and the ones we’ve found have been cleared up.”
A review of the district’s transportation system, commissioned by White last year, portrays the transportation department as a renegade operation so disorganized that it fails to respond to the superintendent’s directives, cuts into classroom teaching and wastes taxpayer money. A private contractor runs about 70 percent of the district’s routes; IPS owns buses and hires drivers to do the rest.
“Transportation always has been a place that had a lot of confusion,” said School Board member Michael D. Brown, a former IPS bus driver. “I just don’t really know how it got that way.”
For instance, the district buys 84-passenger buses and hasn’t considered 77-passenger buses, auditors said, although the smaller buses are cheaper and easier to maintain. Auditors never saw more than 50 students on a bus.
White questioned, though, whether auditors might have seen buses for special programs that had fewer students and not seen others with more children on them.
And the cost of the whole transportation operation raises questions of its own.
IPS spends $1,500 per year to transport one student on its buses. Each bus route run by the contractor costs half of what it would cost IPS to do the job itself. And the district could buy IndyGo passes for 13,000 middle- and high-schoolers. Each pass would cost $330 per year, auditors said.
That would add up to at least $5.4 million in savings.
“The first-blush reaction is it’s a no-brainer,” said Mike Terry, vice president of IndyGo. “This is an opportunity for IndyGo to pick up and support the school system. It would benefit the whole community.”
The transportation department’s problems go beyond financial issues.
When White announced a program this school year to open 21 new alternative schools — a key part of his plan to improve discipline and academics — auditors said the transportation department either didn’t or couldn’t plan adequately for the task.
They noted that “a general lack of planning, coordination and attention to detail has inhibited the Transportation Department’s ability to expand service.”
“We have to change the system,” White said. “We’re doing a better job right now than we ever had. . . . There are just some dysfunctional practices they’ve gotten into.”
Schools stumble, too
The central office problems have echoes in schools, sometimes in the misuse of public funds, according to a 2007 audit by the state.
The audit found several problems at Arlington High School on the Northeastside. The school was cheating students with two separate fees. In one, students were charged a $10 locker deposit to pay for repairs if needed. Auditors said few students received refunds, and no money was used for locker repairs.
In another policy error, Arlington charged a flat fee for textbooks and then didn’t offer refunds to some students whose books cost less than the fee.
Perhaps most illustrative of the lax accounting at the school was a candy sale to raise money for cheerleading. The sale was called off because the candy was lost or, in some cases, destroyed, but a year later the school hadn’t paid vendors for the candy. And when auditors went looking for the paper trail of who oversaw the candy sale, they found nothing.
Apparently, the effort had never been officially approved.
White, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on management of school-level funds, has said the problems are fixed and won’t happen again. The state has not filed a follow-up audit, but White said he had seen an advance copy that shows almost no problems at schools.
Students lose out
For those who want to help students, the mistakes at IPS can be insurmountable — and heartbreaking.
Kathy Cannon, a teacher at Shortridge Middle School, had been bugging her principal to buy a “Smart Board,” a kind of 21st-century blackboard that doubles as a giant computer screen.
Shortridge couldn’t find money to buy one of the boards, which typically cost more than $1,300.
Meanwhile, new administrators taking over a magnet program found tens of thousands of dollars worth of science gear and computers in a storage room at another school. Some of the equipment had been there for years. Some of it apparently had never reached a classroom.
Among the equipment were several Smart Boards.
Cannon got her wish when the unused gear was parceled out to schools, hers among them.
She came out better than many, especially those from outside the district who try to help.
Inspired to help by a newspaper article last year, Far-Eastside resident Cris Giddens called Marshall Middle School to volunteer, but no one at the school followed through. She called the district office for days only to get a busy signal.
Eventually, an administrator gave her contacts at three other schools near her that she was assured would want help. She called principals at all three and didn’t get a single call back.
Now she volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana.
Someone there returned her call.
“A lot of the problems IPS is having are self-imposed in that they’re not responsive,” she said. “It’s hard to have sympathy for the problems they have when numerous attempts are made to help them.”
Call Star reporter Andy Gammill at (317) 444-6494.