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Streamlining the Schools

Efficiency review of school division suggests 72 recommendations at a cost of $8.4 million.

An efficiency review of Alexandria’s school system released this week showed a mixed evaluation of Alexandria City Public Schools — commending some aspects of the school’s financial situation while making 72 recommendations for streamlining operations. MGT of America, the management research and consulting firm that conducted the review, estimated that the cost of implementing all the recommendations would be about $8.4 million over a five-year period. The consultants also estimated that a full implementation of the recommendations would save the division about $5.6 million, creating a net cost of $2.8 million.

"They seem to be saying that we should be spending more money," said Amy Carlini, director of information and outreach for the division. "We must be pretty efficient."

The purpose of the review, which the previous School Board voted for last year, was to identify ways the division could realize cost savings in non-instructional areas in an effort to divert that money into the classroom. The consultants commended the school system’s monthly financial reports, although it said they could be reformatted to include less detail and more analysis of trends. Some of the proposed changes were organizational in nature, suggesting that the executive director for information and outreach report to an assistant superintendent instead of the superintendent. Other recommendations were more sweeping, such as the one that outlining a restructuring effort for the information-technology department. One of the recommendations suggested that Superintendent Rebecca Perry spent too much time reading her e-mail, proposing a new system in which her executive assistant could open and process all the superintendent’s e-mail.

"There were many useful suggestions for improvement that we will study to see which ones are feasible and which ones are not," said Perry. "Some of the recommendations, like increasing the number of students on buses, may not serve our students well."

EMPLOYEE SURVEYS that were included in the report show that administrators, principals and teachers have a higher degree of satisfaction with the superintendent than the School board. For example, when school principals were asked to rate Perry’s "work as chief administrator (manager) of the school division," she received 100-percent approval. When asked to rate the School Board’s "work as the educational leader of this school division," principals gave the newly elected leaders an 87-percent approval rating.

"I think Ms. Perry has done a good job, although I don’t know that I would have rated her at 100 percent," said Jim McClary, former president of the Douglas Macarthur Elementary School PTA. "I think it’s harder to evaluate the School Board because they’ve only been on the job a year."

The survey results also reveal deep divisions between central office administrators and School Board members. When asked to rate the School Board members’ "knowledge of the educational needs in this school division," only 3 percent of central office administrators approved of how the current board has been handling its work. During interviews with School Board members, the report noted "concern among some board members about the effectiveness of the superintendent."

"The superintendent, administrative staff and board members stated in interviews with MGT that the budget process for Alexandria City Public Schools was extremely difficult during this past budget cycle," the review reported. "All parties agreed that the budget process took a toll on the relationship between the board and the central office staff."

SUGGESTING THAT THE School Board has been "sidetracked from its traditional role," the efficiency review suggested that the board "lacks a clearly articulated vision, mission and goals." Exacerbating the problem, according to the review, was the lack of staggered terms for elected leaders that created a sense of discontinuity in leadership. To remedy the problem, MGT suggested that board members conduct a retreat to develop clearly articulated goals. Ultimately, the report suggested that the board develop specific performance-related goals to evaluate the superintendent.

"Without an articulated strategic plan with measurable goals and benchmarks, we have not made much headway toward the challenges we face in our school system — with the biggest being the minority achievement gap," said School Board member Eileen Cassidy Rivera. "Our number-one goal in the second year of our term should be to tie our strategic plan with our budget."

One area where the consulting firm found "excessive" spending was legal services. While the average cost-per-pupil cost of legal services is $9.20, MGT reported, the Alexandria school system spends $22.33 per pupil. To remedy the excessive spending in this area, the auditors suggested that the division use a municipal legal counsel instead of the firm of Blankingship & Keith. Last year alone, the Fairfax-City-based law firm received $208,058 from city taxpayers. But partnering with the city could be a potential solution.

"In addition to the partnership, the division should also work to hold down legal costs by delineating in policy and procedures, defining who may access legal services and under what conditions," the report concluded. "Unrestricted access to such services can result in spiraling costs."