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When Poway Unified hired a consultant in November 2014, it was hoping to get an outside expert to weigh in on the district’s education technology program.
What it got was a scathing indictment of the district as a whole – IT issues couldn’t be fixed until Poway Unified acknowledged and addressed problems with staff distrust and dysfunction and a culture resistant to change, according to the report.
The deficiencies also appear to have sidelined the district’s technology chief, Robert Gravina, who has been placed on special assignment for a year or more.
The consultant’s report – which the district released late last week after threatened with a lawsuit by Voice of San Diego – cost $40,000 and was supposed to provide a three- to five-year plan for improving the effectiveness of tech services, operations, staffing and infrastructure.
But the state of affairs within the district was so toxic, the report says, the effort morphed into something else entirely.
“PUSD staff are so mired in the current state that they are unable to envision a desirable future state other than to fix what is broken,” wrote consultant Bob Moore of Kansas-based RJM Strategies, who was contracted from November 2014 through February of this year. “The approximately 100 people interviewed were so focused on the dysfunction that exists, such a forward looking exercise was impossible.”
Instead, Moore zeroed in on the district’s current problems and offered solutions. Behind the scenes of the mostly lauded district, Moore found frustrated principals and district staffers at odds, particularly those in the IT and learning support services departments.
In the self-proclaimed “honest and sometimes blunt” 18-page report, Moore candidly describes issues of perceived condescension and favoritism by the IT department, as well as “uncontrolled and inefficient decision-making,” causing discord and wasting money.
“Every organization has ‘creative tension’ between different teams. This seems to go well beyond healthy friction,” Moore wrote. “Of course the most important impact has nothing to do with technology, but the fact that the students in PUSD are not benefiting from experiences with technology that the district is capable of providing, given effective leadership.”
Moore lays some blame on an understaffed, under-skilled and unaccountable IT department. Another primary issue, he said, is the purchasing freedom given to schools without the necessary training and support.
“Expensive technology resources are underutilized. … Costly investments in technology are not having the desired impact,” Moore wrote. “Students are missing opportunities to use exciting new tools that are essential for college and career readiness.”
All departments ultimately report to Superintendent John Collins, who has led the 35,000-student district since July 2010. Collins has been praised for his leadership over the years by supporters who say he earns his $300,000-plus salary.
Collins declined a request for an interview but released a statement praising the IT staff for providing “excellent resources and service through a decade or more of exponential changes in technology and unprecedented budget cuts in K-12 education.”
He also said the district plans to analyze the audit’s findings.
“Like any successful team, their work becomes stronger and more effective through ongoing evaluation and continuous improvement,” said Collins. “Throughout this process, the district is committed to maintaining and improving transparency as well as community input and involvement.”
Gravina, the district’s chief technology officer, deferred comment to district officials. Neither Rich Newman, director of innovation, nor Mel Robertson, associate superintendent of learning support services, responded to requests for comment.
In a July 15 memo obtained by Voice of San Diego, Collins told the school board Gravina was being placed on special assignment in order to focus solely on the rollout of a new purchasing, payroll, personnel and finance software called PeopleSoft.
“This is an enormous undertaking that will take Robert’s full time and attention for at least one year and probably more. As such, Robert will no longer have any responsibilities regarding the day-to-day operation of the IT department,” Collins wrote. Newman will take his place and engage “in a transition process to bring innovation and change to the department in the identified areas.”
Additional reorganization and staffing recommendations will likely be forthcoming, Collins said in the memo, and a new advisory team focused on IT leadership and decisions will be formed in August.
Only two of the 20 principals interviewed by Moore responded to interview requests; both deferred comment to district officials.
To improve, Moore recommended the district:
• Increase IT staffing
• Increase funding for IT training or limit technology initiatives
• Create a roadmap of technology experiences and skills every student should have
• Take a hard look at IT leadership, the negative perceptions that exist and why they exist
• Draw clear lines between district and school decisions
• Develop a process for getting tech support and boost self-service options
The district provided the RJM report to board members just hours before it relinquished the report to Voice of San Diego on July 15 in response to a public records request. Board member Andy Patapow did not respond to requests for comment, and board member T.J. Zane declined to discuss the findings.
Board member Charles Sellers said he “was shocked but not surprised” by Moore’s account.
“The report makes clear we are wasting money and as a result students and taxpayers are being harmed. I think that’s the basic upshot,” said Sellers, who was elected in November. “John has said technology is the future … This report says we aren’t getting it right.”
Sellers also expressed disappointment in Collins’ handling of the report.
“It’s very clear he’s had that information for a long time and he chose to not share it. … The bottom line is he didn’t tell us what was going on and he didn’t ask us to help with it,” Sellers said. “The team approach to solving this problem is key because it’s the antithesis to what created this problem … Where is the board in this? We are all part of the team. We’ve got a lot of I in team here.”
Board member Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff, also elected in November, said in an email she heard technology concerns from parents and teachers during her campaign.
At her suggestion, the district created a 10-member education technology advisory committee composed of employees and members of the public in February, something Moore also suggested. The committee has held one of its four annual meetings, but no minutes were made available by the district.
That committee, not a new one proposed by Collins, should be involved in deciding the best way forward, said Sellers.
“This is absolutely completely within their wheelhouse,” he said.
“While not everything in the report was a complete surprise, I found the assessment in its entirety sobering and disheartening,” said board President Kimberley Beatty. “This report describes systemic problems, so change is definitely warranted.”
Beatty also said the board will convene to decide what to change.
Lynnette Turner, president of the Poway School Employees Association, which represents most IT staff, said the union continues to ask for cut positions to be restored. A district-funded and union-run professional development program is being launched, but union leaders “hope to cultivate a more collaborative approach with management on determining the needs of the employees,” she said.
“The report in many areas confirmed what we have been trying to tell the district for quite some time. There is a serious lack of support staff to do the job required, and little to no professional development to keep our skills current,” Turner said.
Aside from a $100 million capital appreciation bond deal made in 2011 that will cost the district nearly $1 billion to repay, Poway Unified has long been held up as a model district with stellar student achievement.
Moore’s report claims not all public Poway Unified impressions are reality.
“With a quick look from the outside and with a non-critical eye, PUSD appears to have implemented a ‘best in class’ IT operations center, as well as cutting-edge services,” Moore wrote. “The appearance of excellence from an outside perspective does not accurately reflect the systemic issues that exist in terms of services, support and leadership.”
The district’s next regularly scheduled board meeting is Aug. 24.