Report details problems in Manatee School District’s HR department. The chief just quit

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The nationwide teacher shortage created a dire need to hire educators and leave a positive first impression on applicants, but the Manatee County School District has struggled to meet the needs of both current and would-be employees, according to a new report.

A study was conducted in April and the district received a final report at the end of May, according to an email from district spokeswoman Melissa Parker.

Sarah Brown, who worked as chief of human resources for about four years, recently departed from the school district with a resignation letter dated on May 28. Brown’s resignation becomes effective in late June, and she is now a finalist for the superintendent job at Bozeman Public Schools, in Montana.

She could not be reached for comment.

According to the report, Brown’s department lost sight of its primary objective: the needs of principals and their schools.

“There appears to be an ‘us vs. them’ mentality between the HR Department and the schools they serve,” it states. “It appears that schools often view HR as an impediment rather than a vehicle to assist them in their everyday responsibilities.”

Superintendent Cynthia Saunders requested the focus study, which was then carried out by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, according to the report.

As a member of the organization, Saunders received the focus study at no cost to the district, her spokeswoman said.

A group of consultants started by reviewing the district’s November 2018 survey of principals and other administrators. One question — “I am pleased with the level of customer service I receive” — drew an equal number of positive and negative responses from the 53 respondents.

“Because the responses were so varied, the question arises: Are all schools receiving adequate support according to their individual school needs?” the report said.

More than 70 percent of respondents said they started school without a full staff, and that HR failed to regularly provide data on staff attendance, leave and turnover, along with other key information about the schools.

More than 60 percent of people disagreed when asked if the HR department found “viable and well-qualified candidates for my vacancies.” And at least half of the school leaders disagreed when asked if “the application process for candidates is user friendly, easy to navigate, and easy to complete.”

“These high percentages of disagree or strongly disagree responses indicate that principal’s personnel hiring needs are not being met,” the report states.

The report goes on to highlight a problem with communication between HR staff and other departments. It also notes that HR was slow to create or update vital documents, such as the employee handbook and the personnel calendar, along with interviews for people who leave or stay in the district.

“There is a lack of decision making and decisiveness coming out of the HR Department, resulting in a lack of responsiveness to concerns,” the report states.

The report found that Manatee’s HR staff “has not been providing services at an acceptable level,” and that some blamed Taleo, the district’s hiring program. Others blamed the district’s new business management software, commonly known as the ERP system.

While both are certainly troubled, neither should get in the way of recruiting and retaining teachers, the report concluded. The HR staff had yet to train on vital features of the ERP system, a program that launched on July 1, more than nine months ago.

The report said each HR employee “must be held accountable for their assigned job requirements and an accountability system must be in place to regularly assess all functions in the department.”

“The services of the HR department, especially in recruitment of the very best teachers, are too important to allow technology systems to be used as the reason for not providing high quality services,” the report continued.

Consultants said a powerful change will require “extended time and effort” by the district and its HR staff, but they also listed a dozen short-term recommendations that would be quick and cost effective. The recommendations range from changing how open positions are posted to changing when employees receive their pay checks.

The school district is currently reviewing the suggestions, and applications for the chief HR position will close on Monday, according to an email from Parker, the district’s spokeswoman.

“We are reviewing the report,” she wrote. “Some of the ‘12 suggestions’ have been started and will be fully addressed upon the hiring of a new chief.”

The district should form an ongoing advisory committee to review HR procedures and establish needed changes, starting with its current hiring and on-boarding process, according to the report. It also said HR employees should become more responsive, and that staff should be held accountable for errors in their work.

Other recommendations included the creation of a hiring checklist, including vital dates and needed documents, along with the formation of a detailed contact list to connect HR staff and other district employees.

“The HR staff should be provided with the tools and the leadership to be successful in their jobs,” the report states.