Study: Fixing Human Resources Is No Small Task for Districts

By Jeff Archer — April 14, 2004 3 min read
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Teacher hiring in the Houston Independent School District used to be a messy affair. Each summer, principals would come to the central office to riffle through piles of applications, often while sitting on the floor.

The study, “From Bystander to Ally: Transforming the District Human Resources Department,” is available online from the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Now, a computerized system lets school leaders hunt for new hires without leaving their buildings. In addition, each school is assigned a human- resources expert to lend advice and help in meeting its staffing needs.

The overhaul took millions of dollars and the willingness to shake up an entrenched bureaucracy. It shows the scale of change needed to create a personnel-management system that helps, rather than hinders, a district’s school improvement efforts, say the authors of a new report.

Slated for release this week by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the report describes attempts by three districts—Houston, Milwaukee, and San Diego—to revamp the way their central offices handle personnel.

The study, “From Bystander to Ally: Transforming the District Human Resources Department,” concludes that to re-engineer personnel management requires some key ingredients. Among them: upgrades in the skills of human-resources staff members, investments in new technology, and a superintendent who sees restructuring the department as critical to achieving academic goals.

On the Same Page

“Human resources has such a connection with the front line, with teachers and principals and staff,” said Christine Campbell, one of the report’s authors. “When HR was on the same page as the district leaders, that’s when they were finding some real benefits to the work they were doing.”

The study was paid for by the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which also underwrites coverage of leadership in Education Week. In site visits, surveys, and interviews, the researchers found widespread dissatisfaction with the way human resources had traditionally been run in the three systems.

Rather than a solution to their staffing problems, many principals saw the departments as something they had to work around. Human-resources staff members were seen as devoting most of their time to ensuring compliance with rules and regulations, such as making sure no school hired more teachers than it should.

“If principals are being held more to task for their schools as leaders, then you want HR and other central-office services to really support them in that role, rather than just be reactive or provide perfunctory administrative support,” said Michael DeArmond, another author of the report.

To do that, the districts in the study employed some common strategies. All three hired new top personnel managers, who beefed up training in their departments and who in turn hired other human-resources professionals from outside education.

At the same time, they sought to make sure that those in the department understood the district’s larger school improvement strategies. The 98,000-student Milwaukee school system brought the department into the division responsible for educational accountability. In San Diego, which serves 142,000 students, administrators in human resources were steeped in the instructional changes under way in the system.

Districts also changed the way those in the department carried out their work. Both Houston and San Diego created “generalist” positions, so principals had one person in the central office to go to for help with personnel issues. Previously, school leaders had had to deal with different administrators depending upon whether the question was about a teacher, a nurse, or a custodian.

“It was total chaos,” said Beatrice Garza, the executive general manager of human resources in Houston, recalling how things used to work there.

Ms. Garza herself is symbolic of the sea change in the 211,000-student Houston district. Although a former elementary school teacher, she had more than 12 years’ experience as a human- resources executive in the private sector when she was hired in 2000 by then-Superintendent Rod Paige. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Paige became the U.S. secretary of education.

While recruiting and training her cadre of “generalists,” the 55-year-old Ms. Garza also has brought new efficiency to the department. Criminal-background checks, which sometimes used to take weeks, now are completed in 24 hours. And in a break with past practice, principals can find out who has applied for a job with the district before all of the candidate’s paperwork is complete.

“You have to be willing to say, ‘This isn’t working,’” Ms. Garza said.

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