DISD's Department of Uselessness

In the ever-lasting debate over whether and how and how well our teachers are living up to their charge -- that charge, of course, being simply to save their country from a slow, seamless descent into collective idiocy -- a lot of buzzwords get buzzed: evaluations, testing, metrics, merit pay, longevity, Teach for America and No Child Left Behind and Why is Mrs. Bannister Always Sipping From That Shiny Thermos In Her Desk?

But as Robert noted earlier, these days the Dallas Independent School District and its board are wondering whether something simpler, something basic to most private enterprises its size, might be at the root of the personnel problems touched on in a Dallas Morning News editorial on Sunday: its human resources department.

Often dismissed as a useless branch on the org chart, it's easy to see how a smart, efficient HR unit can have an acute and lasting impact on the education students receive. It can help recruit the best teachers and administrators and support staff, smooth their transition into employment and, perhaps as importantly, smooth the lousy ones' transition into unemployment.

But as the board learned two weeks ago, in advance of a Thursday-night vote, DISD's HR department has been doing virtually none of that.

This highly depressing discovery is brought to you by a commission of private-sector HR gurus, tapped by Trustees Nancy Bingham and Edwin Flores and including Container Store founder Garrett Boone, whose company has been ranked among the nation's best for workers. With one HR staffer for every 800 employees -- the Houston school district has twice that many -- "there's not an adequate structure" in place, Boone said. It would be "impossible for any organization on earth" to effectively hire, train and manage a workforce the size of DISD's -- 20,000 employees, among the most of any employer in Dallas -- with its current HR department.

It starts at the top, where the commission recommended hiring an HR executive who reports directly to the superintendent and who's paid private-sector loot: around $300,000, says trustee Mike Morath, more than interim Superintendent Alan King pulls in now.

What a fun job that will be. Among the problems the new HR chief will have to fix, according to the report: The department doesn't screen all candidates, which it should. Principals have carte blanche to hire whoever they want, which they shouldn't. There's no defined process for finding good candidates. The hiring process takes too long -- sometimes two months. There's no succession planning for administrators. There's no uniform interview process. And so on and so on and so on, until $13,000 a year for private school starts to sound like a damn steal.

"It paints a picture of a department that's totally dysfunctional" Morath told us a day after hearing the commission's findings. He added: "It's a huge problem, but for whatever reason the previous administration didn't deal with it."

One reason: It ain't cheap. The commission didn't put a price tag on its recommendations, but they would easily run into the millions. Those dollars won't be easy to find at a time when state lawmakers seem eager to defund public schools, like bullies lurking outside a Physics Club meeting. And it'll take some political will, since teachers, watching their ranks dwindle, won't look kindly on the board dumping more money into administration.

The commission's report "comes at a very inopportune time," says Rena Honea, president of Alliance-AFT, which represents DISD teachers. "The amount of money and resources that's going to have to be put into this project are going to be a very large sum. ... We have to be realistic."

But that's thing: The Container Store guy and his HR-guru friends? They come from reality, and they seem to think that the dysfunction of the district HR apparatus is as real a problem as it gets. The board seems to think so too -- even if budget and bureaucratic realities stopped them from acting on the recommendations last week. And King? He's all-in.

"I plan to take this list and implement everything that doesn't have budget implications or require board approval," he said at the meeting, without prompting. It was the kind of assertiveness an HR pro would have loved.

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Joe Tone
Contact: Joe Tone