Martin School Board members urged staff earlier this year to stem tide on employee losses

STUART – The Martin County School District Human Resources Department provided feedback to the School Board Oct. 15 on recent efforts to improve employee morale in light of member concerns expressed earlier this year on employee turnover.

Board Member concerns came to a head last July when contracted School Board Attorney Anthony George tendered his resignation at the request of his Stuart-based law firm Fox, Wackeen, Dungey, Beard, Sobel, Bush & McCluskey, which has handled most of the District’s legal services since 2012. Even though School Board officials subsequently convinced his firm to renegotiate a lesser contract a short time later while they look for a permanent solution, that scare prompted District 4 Board Member Tony Anderson to air his concerns July 16.

“I’m not too good at tap dancing around issues,” he said during that meeting. “I just sense that something’s not right, and I’m not too happy about that. What I do know is that people have been leaving, and they’re leaving for a reason. Somehow, we need to get to the bottom of what’s going on – we are losing a lot of good people.”

His concerns, along with those expressed by District 2 Board Member Marsha Powers during the same meeting, were aggravated by the loss of School Board Accountant Sean Lewis early this year that forced the District to scramble to outsource critical audits on deadline.

“At some point we’re going to have to address the underlying issue that has brought this about,” she insisted. “Maybe that is at our next Florida School Boards Association master board training because it’s gotten to a point that it’s really impacting who we hire and who we retain.”

Chief Human Resource Officer Carlos Perez told the Board during the latest meeting that he’s focused on employee retention since joining the District himself last August.

“One of the first things that I was actually even spoken to about, even when I interviewed, was recruitment and retention,” he emphasized. “How do we not only get the best but hold on to them? And that’s been a focus of mine since I started and something that’s been echoed in our office.”

To further that goal, Mr. Perez said that he and HR Director Maurice Bonner had already attended three recruitment fairs and had nearly 20 more tentatively scheduled between now and the end of the 2019/20 School Year. He believes the pair got confirmation recently at the Nemnet minority recruitment fair that the District’s new mentor program was on track to address those very concerns.

“They shared with us some data that was pretty impressive, and they talked to about 3,000 candidates,” he explained. “The question was ‘What made you decide to go where you selected?’ The number one response was support and professional development, and how they saw themselves being helped through those first three to five years. So we kind of looked at each other, and the first thing we thought about was this plan that [Director of Professional Development] Matthew [Wlodarczyk] was working on and how important that’s going to be.”

For his part, Mr. Wlodarczyk provided the Board additional information on the mentorship program that will be soon be detailed in a new pamphlet handed out to potential Martin County teachers at upcoming recruitment fairs.

“MartinMentors is a mentoring program where we support the learning of the new teachers who have just come in the door with those veteran teachers to be the mentors,” he explained. “So that’s the phase that really came together this year and is coming together as we speak, based on the new Florida Department of Education’s four components of clinical educators. It’s really robust, and we’re definitely helping the mentors to not only do the logistics – the people you need to go to – but beyond that, the other things you can do in really providing that coaching support within the classroom.”

In addition, the District is now in the second year of its New Educator Orientation, which Mr. Wlodarczyk referred to as an intensive “onboarding” event.

“We went from a one-day process to a three-day process, which all reports have been great and this year was even a bigger success,” he exclaimed. “It was our second year to our brand-new mentoring program, which we hadn’t really had one District-wide for a while. The two pillars that we really focus on are the two that really correspond to those adults: employee success and culture of collaboration.”

The HR staff is also striving to streamline the administrative pathway for educators desiring to become assistant principals and principals so they won’t feel the need to change districts to fulfill their own career goals. That led to the formation last year of the Aspiring Assistant Principals Academy.

“This just represents a ladder of progression for those folks who are interested in becoming a principal, which is that end goal,” the Professional Development director added. “So we took the opportunity to look at a couple things we already had in place, which was the National Institute of School Leaders, as well as how could we integrate a fast-track program. So we did the first round last year, feedback was excellent, and we’re revising the program accordingly. This really helps those folks get to that level 1 certification, which is the Ed Leadership Certificate.”

After his presentation, Board Member Powers suggested a slightly different tack than such a tight focus on the administrative career ladder of education.

“Administration isn’t our biggest segment of employees,” she insisted. “I think that we would be failing the School District if we didn’t focus on where the real leadership is needed, and that’s in the classroom. I think there should be a model where a teacher could be in a leadership position and making as much as an assistant principal regardless of the title because they’re a leader at their school.”

Chairwoman Christia li Roberts agreed, saying teachers needed an alternative path for career growth.

“I think what we’re saying is that at some point if you can show us what that looks like to become a master teacher,” she said. “So that if the Board ever did get to a position where besides principals and assistant principals, we’d also have an X number of designated master teachers who we utilized maybe in some of the same functions that you’d be utilizing an assistant principal for: driving instruction and maintaining the rigor.”

Mr. Wlodarczyk admitted he liked the idea but believes the District could be hamstrung by how Florida currently funds educational salaries.

“I would contend that my team is filled with master teachers, and I would also contend that unfortunately because of our funding structure, it’s hard for me to recruit to that next level of advancement,” he said. “Some of that is really how we incentivize teachers within the state, and it’s not a Martin County phenomenon necessarily. So I really think we have to look at all of those components of how better to do that, because I think there are many people in this District, teachers, who are really good, and we need to help tap their expertise. So I love that idea, and there’s many levels that we have to think about, components that all work together to support that.”

Chairwoman Roberts then asked Mr. Wlodarczyk to help the District further define just such a future career path for teachers not overly anxious to become school administrators.

“What we need from you is to show us what this path looks like,” the former said. “Then the Board, which deals with policy and budget, has the ability to decide what direction we want to do if we wanted to change staffing allocations and redefine and create new roles. But in order to do that, we need to understand what the training package looks like.”

“We’ll be happy to share those details without a doubt,” the latter responded.

Ms. Powers also wanted to get feedback from the HR staff on the results obtained from the Department’s increased focus on recruitment fairs.

“Are we getting the return on our investment?” she asked. “How many teachers are we recruiting, and after a year how many are still here? After two years, after three years, what does that look like? At our last workshop we talked about using that model of reporting back to the Board because a lot of times we approve things, but we don’t really know if what we spent our taxpayer dollars on is actually working. So I would like some sort of report-back mechanism to know what’s working and what’s not working.”

Mr. Perez responded that while HR compiled all the data it could, the information might not provide all the answers desired by the Board.

“We can run reports that will give you teachers we’ve hired, who’ve left, who’ve stayed, but it doesn’t necessarily give you the reasons why someone goes,” he explained. “So you could have maybe 40 teachers leave in one year, but it may necessarily be that they left to become either an assistant principal or they left for a directorship, so it could be reasons other than I didn’t feel supported. Those specific reasons aren’t really shared as much when somebody leaves… it really just shows retirement, termination or resignation.”

District 3 Board Member Victoria Defenthaler then expressed her frustration at that revelation.

“Since I’ve been on the Board, I’ve been asking for exit interviews, and I’d like to know why people are leaving,” she said. “So [do] whatever you can do. I was told by the former HR [director] that they were starting to collect that, but I still haven’t seen it, so that’s important. I just see a lot of separations… for a variety of jobs, so we need to know what’s happening.”

Mr. Perez insisted the HR staff itself felt stymied when trying to get resigning employees to complete exit interview questions.

“The problem is getting them to do them, getting someone to actually respond and send them back,” he said.

Board Member Anderson encouraged him, however, to keep prodding the departing employees for that feedback.

“Short of holding someone down and telling them ‘tell me what the problem is,’ because at that point it really doesn’t matter anyway, they’re going and they probably want to give you a piece of their mind,” he said as his fellow Board members chuckled. “The problem is, you probably don’t want to hear it. But it is important that you taken notes of these, [especially] if you keep hearing the same thing over and over again.”

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