Is The Hamilton County School System Top Heavy? - And Response (2)

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Every two-year School Board election, and every year at Hamilton County budget approval time, the charge is always made that the Hamilton County Schools central office is top heavy, and that money should be taken from administrative budgets and given towards the classroom. This issue has never been resolved.

The reason it has never been resolved is that there is no data to support one side or the other. It is all speculation on the voter’s side, and non-transparent management and hierarchical decisions tied to traditions, on the other side.

No one wants the education of our children to be understaffed. By the same token most people want the staff to be as lean and as effective as possible to save taxpayers money and put the same dollars in classrooms.

I would think the HCS administration would welcome such a review. It would build trust and help them make a better case to voters and commissioners.

I propose the candidates for School Board promise to the voters that they will call for a management audit, payed for outside of the county school budget. There is such a thing in business called “span of control”. The basic concept is how many managers does it take to manage a certain number of people. McKinsey and Company did a study and said the national average for larger businesses was for every 15 to 20 people, who need some sort of management or oversight. HCS has 6,860+ employees, 3,921 are not teachers who do report to principals in the 78 schools. This is tricky business because different department may need more managers/administrators than others.

I have tried repeatedly to get an organizational chart from the school system, but to no avail. Why is this kept a secret? The taxpayers fund it and the voters elect the Board. These are the people’s schools.

How well the voters and taxpayers would be served by a professional audit of the management’s “span of control”, where a range, from lower to higher, could be factually provided with evidence and rationales of how many people it takes to run the school system in supervision and management and administration, without counting the teachers, including salaries and benefits. This could put an end, or at least create a lane, for an informed discussion of this charge. 

Candidates this year, elected Aug. 6, should make this part of their platform and commitment to the voters. I am sure private donors would fund the project, so there would be little question of outsized influence. Rhonda, Marco, Steve, Tom, Debbie, Joe, Tiffanie: pledge to the voters you will call for such an audit. It could bring healing to this continual contentious question.

Doug Daugherty. Sr.

* * * 

Doug: 
Interesting questions - and good news - much work has been done in Hamilton County by respected business leaders to determine the answer to your question: "Is Hamilton County Schools top heavy?"

In 2017 County Mayor Coppinger brought together the "Mayor's Budget Working Group" to study the Hamilton County Schools budget. The group included: 

Valorie Armstrong, then-president of Tennessee American Water
Dane Boyington, co-founder of Thinking Media
Sheila Boyington, co-founder of Thinking Media
Larry Buie, general manager at Chattanooga Gas Co
Nick Decosimo, managing shareholder at Elliott Davis Decosimo
David Eichenthal, managing director at the PFM Group
James Haley, chairman of Miller & Martin
Tim Kelly, owner of Kelly Auto
Michael Lebovitz, executive vice president of CBL & Associates Properties
Dana Perry, shareholder at Chambliss Law
Kim White, president of River City Co.

This top-notch group did tremendous work and produced a 69-page report chock to the brim with efficiency recommendations.

As a private citizen at the time, I was interested to read that in fact, no, Hamilton County Schools was not top heavy. Rather, years of trimming the budget to the bone had actually created a central office that lacked the capacity to effectively plan due to lack of business expertise and being stretched too thin. The Working Group recommended that Hamilton County Schools increase efficiency by reorganizing Central Office and hiring c-suite executives including a chief information officer, a chief talent officer, and a chief operating officer. 

When hired, Dr. Bryan Johnson heeded the advice of the Mayor's Budget Working Group on the recommendation of creating an A-team to lead the district as well as on several other elements in the report. 

Now as a serving school board member, I see the positive impact the leaders are having on HCS delivering a more consistent, higher-quality education to our students than the system was providing before rethinking the value of leadership at the district level. I also continue to reference the working group report, as it contains many other efficiency recommendations that will require more time to implement. 

Regarding your other question about an organizational chart, I have found that Hamilton County Schools is operating in the brightest sunshine of any county organization. You can find an organizational chart, the system strategic plan, vendor information, and much much more at https://www.hcde.org/about_us/openhcs. This tool was launched in December 2019. 

The school board election Aug. 6 is very important - as is every school board election. Our public schools are the backbone of Hamilton County's economic future. The current board has been dedicated to implementing a bold strategic plan for our system. Schools are on an upward trajectory and it's critical that we remain laser focused on our goals and resourcing our strategies in order to maintain momentum. My hope for all school board candidates is that they know our Future Ready 2023 Strategic Plan backward and forward and come to every conversation prepared to bring ideas on how we can bring the plan to fruition. 

Jenny Hill
School Board, District 6

* * *

I want to thank School Board Member Jenny Hill for her prompt response to my letter of June 25 “Is The Hamilton County School System Top Heavy?”. However, she missed the point and the question still begs to be answered.

I was aware of and have studied the 2017 “Mayor Coppinger Working Group” report on the schools which suggest several changes in organization and key staff additions. It was well done. The organizational chart is also well designed. Thank you for bringing those to the conversation.
However, the “Top Heavy” question remains to be answered and can only be answered by an outsider management review. 

Of the 114 people on the organizational chart, 15 work with the principals for the 2,841 teachers. That leaves 99 persons as either managers, directors, supervisors, specialist or coordinators, plus the Superintendent, who work with the remaining 3,921 non-teaching employees of the school system. That means one manager for an average “span of control” of one for every 39.6 employees. 

The organizational chart does not answer how many people manage others at the top levels. Forty to one is a bit hard to swallow.

If taxpayers do think there are too many people at the leadership level, getting more than healthy salaries, and their tax dollars are paying for the schools, then why can’t this question be scientifically answered by some type of non-financial audit, but personnel audit?
It could be. Maybe the same Coppinger task force could be reconvened to do exactly that.
Hamilton County residents are generally tax averse. If that is true, then the administration and school board should do all that they can to answer this question that nags and nags and nags local voters.

Doug Daugherty,
Signal Mountain


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