School Officials Seek Clarity in Consolidation Draft, Worry Reporting Structure Could Get ‘Messy’

July 27, 2017 – Town Manager Gayle Corrigan and School Superintendent Victor Mercurio unveiled a consolidation status report at the Town Council’s joint meeting with the School Committee Monday night. The joint session, before a crowd of around 190 people at Swift Community Center, took place at the start of the meeting, before the council voted to remove “acting” from Corrigan’s title and before the council’s executive session, where they voted 3-1 to approve a contract for Corrigan.

The report (find it here) outlined a two-phase timeline for consolidation, a draft finance director job description, and an organizational chart of the joint town-school finance department. Among the proposed “next steps” for the finance department consolidation would be an audit of the current school and town departments, coordination of human resources, and union and legal input. For the IT department, the plan calls for hiring a consultant to analyze school and town IT departments and report back by October or November, with implementation “effective 1/1/2018.” The plan also calls for an in-depth spending analysis of both the town and the schools.

School Committeewoman Lori McEwen immediately questioned the use of solid and dotted lines on the finance department organizational chart, in particular the meaning of the dotted lines.

“That raises red flags for me,” she said. “I’ve worked in a number of environments where they’ve had dotted lines … and they can get messy.”

She noted there was a solid line from the finance director to the town manager but a dotted line to the superintendent, even though the finance director would be overseeing four school-side positions.

“I would prefer a direct line to the superintendent,” she said.

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark agreed.

“In terms of the decisions around hiring, firing, and evaluating, the difference between a solid line and a dotted line perhaps requires some discussion,” she said.

Town Councilman Nino Granatiero said in his experience, the solid line represents who an employee reports to and the dotted line represents who an employee works for.

“You can’t have two “report to’s” because then you have confusion – who do you take your direction from?” he said. “One [person] you’re getting your direction from, your objectives, you’re doing your performance appraisals, the hiring and firing – that’s who you report to. The work for, you know you have an obligation to that person to help them meet their objectives. So when we talk about the finance role, it reports in to the town manager but it also works for the superintendent. He has to have someone to support his objectives.”

Granatiero said this system works very well in business.

Mark pushed back.

“It seems that in order to be able to work through the details … you almost have to go to hypotheticals,” she said. On the one hand, it could work well and everyone would be satisfied. “I think that in order to really get to the heart of some of the questions that we have, you have to go to the other hypothetical, which is that nothing goes so well. Or, it goes really well on the town side, but not so well on the school side. So the question really goes to the heart of, who has the authority and the responsibility to make hiring and firing decisions and what is the … dispute resolution process when the people who are being served and the people in charge disagree about the job performance of an individual?”

Town Council President Sue Cienki said these issues had been addressed back in 2004, when consolidation was first discussed (Cienki was on the School Committee at that time). “If the schools are not represented in this, it won’t work,” she said in apparent agreement with Mark.

School Committeeman Matt Plain said in his experience as an employment lawyer, he saw potential conflicts in the proposed reporting structure.

If there were a critical assignment for the School Department with a deadline, Plain proposed, what if the employee also had another assignment for the town – which would get precedence. He argued there would need to be considerable time set aside to clarify such potential conflicts.

Another area of concern for School Committee members was the IT consolidation timeline. Committeewoman Yan Sun called it “very aggressive,” and warned that IT disruptions during the school year would hurt students.

Chairwoman Mark said the School Committee would review the plan at its meeting Tuesday, Aug. 1, and come up with recommendations for the next draft.

Town Councilman Andy Deutsch was encouraged by the report but admitted the process so far has been rocky.

“I hear the School Committee’s comments today and I feel optimistic,” he said. “There’s a reason it says draft. The group of people here today can solve these problems. I don’t think everything’s been done perfectly. I’m not that naive. But … I don’t think the sky is falling. I think we have concerned people who are going to make this happen – 1.0 is great; 1.1 will be better.”

Councilman Mark Schwager, alternatively, took a much dimmer view of the process thus far.

“We essentially hired a school department employee to work for the town without the consent of the school department,” Schwager said, referring to Linda Dykeman, who was appointed to a shared interim finance director position at the school department after Gail Wilcox left her job as director of administration for the district.

“She only works there 10 hours a week,” Cienki said of Dykeman’s school department role.

“I don’t know if she has other responsibilities as well,” Schwager said. “Is she working in other capacities outside of the town of East Greenwich?”

He also questioned how the hiring took place.

“Ordinarily there’s been a process where you post those positions…. We didn’t go through that process. What is the reason for that?” he said, prompting loud clapping from the audience. “Why wouldn’t we give an opportunity for those people who had been in those positions a chance? … We never had a job description. What credentials would be required? What the salary range would be. Once you have those things, you could take time and interview.”

Consolidation may be a good idea, he said, “But this has been a flawed process.”

Schwager continued, “So here we are now, with the two principals of our consulting firm occupying the two most important administrative positions in town government, again, prompting loud clapping from the audience.”

“It’s not a good process.”

The Town Council meets next on Monday, Aug. 7; the School Committee on Tuesday, Aug. 1.

– Elizabeth F. McNamara

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