Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The MPS Agency Superintendents Hate

Efficiency office created in 2010 reports to board members. But is it needed?

By - Jan 16th, 2018 11:58 am
Dr. Darienne Driver

Dr. Darienne Driver

A recent controversy over $100,000 in raises given by Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Darienne Driver won her criticism from teachers and union members and a slap-down from a school board committee. Next the full board could vote to take power over “every single raise” the superintendent wants to give, as Urban Milwaukee reported.

That quick turn of events came about because of the work of a little known entity, the MPS Office of Accountability and Efficiency (OAE). According to Milwaukee School Board member Terry Falk, a whistleblower contacted the OAE office which triggered the investigation of these raises.

But it doesn’t appear that Driver did much wrong here. All but one of the 23 raises she gave fell within the current policy, which allows a superintendent to give up to a 10 percent raise to staff, unless it involves reclassification of a position. One raise was for more than 10 percent, and based on that the board committee voted unanimously to require approvals for all raises given by the superintendent. And Falk predicts the full board will approve that new policy.

That’s a rather major change, all set off by the work of this little known office, which was born in controversy back in 2010. It was proposed by then School Board President Michael Bonds, who suggested the office would eliminate a “layer of bureaucracy,” because there would no “middle person” handling board requests for information from the superintendent, as the Journal Sentinel reported at the time.

But in fact MPS still has a middle person, the head of the Office of Governance, which works with the school board. What Bonds’ proposal did was remove the superintendent’s power over some over data analysts and give them to the school board president.

“Until last night the administration has had the power and control of all data needed to make informed decisions,” Bonds told the Journal Sentinel. “They will be a part of my staff now.” Bonds said that many of those on his “new staff” will keep their same jobs but will report to a new boss, as JS reporter Erin Richards noted.

In short, this was simply a grab of power by the school board. Matt Chasun, current co-manager of OAE, tells Urban Milwaukee the office has 10 or 11 full-time staff, all positions that were moved from working for the administration to working for the school board.

And the board was far from unanimous in approving the change. Two board members at the time, Jeff Spence and Bruce Thompson, vociferously opposed the change, one member voted “present,” one was absent and five board members approved the proposal.

Bonds worked for the city for years and says he saw the new office as comparable to that of the city comptroller, but the comptroller is independently elected and reports to neither the mayor nor Common Council; the OEA reports to the school board.

Back in 2010, Superintendent William Andrekopoulos strongly opposed the creation of this office, saying it would create a difficult-to-lead “bifurcated system,” the JS reported. Gregory Thornton, who succeeded Andrekopolous, “made statements that he wasn’t too thrilled with it,” says Falk, who voted for the office’s creation. As for Driver, she did not respond to requests for comment on the OAE.

It is common for big city school systems to have an internal auditing department that is overseen by the school board, as a recent study by the Great City Schools found. Milwaukee, too, has such an office, Audit Services, with a staff of six, that reports to the board. But a second office with at least 10 more staff to do researchthat reports to the board does not seem common.

Chason says the board wanted to further increase the staff of OAE some years ago, but backed off in the face of opposition from Thornton. Bonds and Chason say they do not know of any other city school system that has such an office, which Chason calls a “unique third arm” of government.

But it may not be entirely unique. Audit Services does reports that examine the “justification of programs that use public resources; economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of resource identification, acquisition, and application…” That sounds like it might overlap OAE at times. Audit Services also has a “Fraud Hotline” that whistleblowers can call about fraud or waste, but they can also call OAE.

Chason calls the OAE the “myth busters of the district.” But his office, he concedes, sometimes re-examines reports from the administration “to provide an objective analysis” and “rarely” comes up with anything different. Bonds offers a passionate defense of OAE, saying the office provides more “checks and balances” and that he believes it has saved MPS “millions of dollars” — though he couldn’t provide any examples.

The office has done a variety of reports over the years, including an analysis of transportation costs;  on student participation in extra-curricular activities; and the widening gap between MPS and other school systems statewide in the percentage of teachers with a masters degree.

No doubt some of its reports can be helpful, but I wonder if today’s board of directors might want to reconsider its size — its budget for the 2016-’17 year was nearly $1.2 million — and functions.

At a time when MPS faces plummeting enrollment and diminishing financial resources, some might find it questionable for the board to greatly increase the staff reporting to it. And at a time when there is so much turnover among big city superintendents, and when good ones are so hard to find for this difficult position, reducing the superintendent’s power to beef up school board clout might be the wrong way to go.

Finally, there is something a tad ironic about the board complaining about raises in administration taking money away that could go to teachers. Driver might want to make the same argument about any money spent on overlapping functions between the administration, OAE and Audit Services.

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One thought on “Murphy’s Law: The MPS Agency Superintendents Hate”

  1. Important historical perspective

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