By Richard Sullins |

The Lee County Board of Education got its first look last week at a draft version of a report being assembled by the consultant they hired to find the areas where the school district most needs attention through a top-to-bottom performance audit, Evergreen Solutions from Tallahassee, Florida.

Dr. Linda Recio, Evergreen’s President Emeritus, went through the major findings of the company’s review of the current state of affairs within the school system last Tuesday. Those conclusions and recommendations were reached after reviewing documents and reports that were requested, conducting a diagnostic review, and performing interviews of identified personnel.

Recio explained that she not only wanted to report on the findings of Evergreen’s review, but also wanted to get the board’s reaction to them and ask that any errors made during their work be pointed out before the final document is produced. The discussion that ensued gave Recio what she seemed to want, particularly as it neared its end. The school board members were clearly sobered by her findings and recommendations, but it was also obvious none of the seven seemed at all surprised by them.

Scope of the work

The final report is still in draft form and the board members received the only copies reviewed at the meeting. But the document, which will consist of nine chapters and is expected to run for more than 340 pages, is expected to lay out a roadmap, in measures both broad and specific, for Lee County Schools to get to the place of excellence that many have sought for years. But the central question now is whether this is the map that the school board will want to follow.

The report will commend the district 31 times for things that it does exceptionally well. Nine of those commendations – just under a third – came in the area of educational service delivery, the primary mission of any school district. Each of those is particularly important to pay attention to, especially given the beatings that the system’s academic programs and their performance have taken at board meetings over the past three years.

And it’s also important to note that the report found 97 other instances where it found deficiencies and made recommendations for improvement that the board and senior administration will need to address if the report is to be implemented.

Evergreen is a national consultant whose webpage says it has assessed the operations of more than 250 school districts in 47 states. Recio remembered, as did some of the longer-term LCS staff, that a similar audit had been done for the district in 2012.

But strangely enough, no records of that review, either in the district office or at Evergreen’s location in Florida, could be found, nor was there any record of whether any recommendations made during that audit eleven years ago were implemented. What happened to that report, and the fieldwork that backed it up, are today a mystery.

The findings

The report’s first chapter is expected to be a summary of the work that the consultant was contracted to perform and an executive summary that describes the breadth of the review. The remaining eight chapters will detail the firm’s examination into that same number of general areas of responsibilities. Among these, a review of athletics programs was not requested or performed.

The most important parts of the review are expected to be in two key areas. The first of these is district organization and management, where the role and involvement of the school board will be considered, and the delivery of educational services will be a second area of focus. It’s here that 21 of the report’s 97 draft recommendations were made.

In several places, the report will emphasize the importance of making decisions based on data in relation to programs, institutional effectiveness, professional development, and the identification of learning gaps. The essence of using data, and understanding where it comes from, is of particular importance in the budgeting process at each of the district’s schools and the report is expected to make a strong case for making fiscal decisions in a greater way based on what data indicates.

There may be several findings that relate to a sense Recio spoke to regarding a “proliferation of site-based management” at some schools, meaning that some critical decisions are being made there without consulting central office staff. The report is expected to recognize and respect school characteristics and what makes each one unique in its community, but that will be tempered by emphasizing the reasons for districtwide consistency and accountability that are vital to the health and viability of the system.

The presentation on Tuesday gave mention to a problem that has plagued the district for years, suggesting that it do more to “identify the root causes of the increased rate of teacher vacancies and develop the associated technical or adaptive solutions to provide stability and return the focus to student learning.”

The Evergreen consulting team also looked carefully at LCS’ governance and organization, impacting the roles played primarily by the school board and senior administrators at both the district office and on school campuses. It commended senior leadership for the effectiveness of the board’s committee structure and for its code of ethics, as well as its ongoing process for reviewing the policies under which the system operates.

Some of the recommendations made in the governance arena were already in the process of being implemented before the draft report was discussed Tuesday. For example, the proposal to share committee chair assignments among the membership of the board moved beyond the Republican majority within the past few weeks with Democrat Jamey Laudate being named to chair the Facilities and Technology Committee, and to improve orientation for new members through a handbook, something that Womack made a priority soon after being handed the gavel.

Others, though, will take more work. A recommendation to modify the organizational chart in the district office won’t be a quick fix. Evergreen’s review discovered that 23 positions now report directly to the superintendent, and this most senior position on the staff serves as the only person to evaluate seven of the district’s 17 school principals. The benefits functions for the system’s 1,200 employees is presently handled through the Finance Office instead of Human Resources, and a significant number of positions were moved from a particular school campus to the central office based on the needs of the individual and not what was best for the system.

In fact, Evergreen’s study will show that the administrative layers of the Lee County Schools have become too burdensome over the past 10 years. It is expected to note that the school board itself has a total of 415 different policies on the books, that far too many professional contracts are being written by both the district office and within each of the schools, and that the LCS district has not had a strategic plan – in any form – for more than a decade.

After presenting its draft findings and recommendations to the school board, the consultants will take the responses they received from the board to heart and return in a few weeks with a finalized version of a report that will be shared with teachers and staff, parents, students, and with the community. Addressing the findings that this completed report will contain is not something the school board will be able to accomplish in a few weeks, a few months, or even likely before the next election.