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Scathing report faults PPS management

Risk assessment finds holes in accountability, budgeting, HR

A draft risk assessment recently released of Portland Public Schools reveals a damning portrait of operations and management at the district.

The draft report, which raises red flags about a broad range of issues — from governance to building security to budgeting — will be discussed and voted on at the next board audit committee meeting. The June 20 meeting was cancelled and the July one has yet to be scheduled.

Audit committee and school board member Paul Anthony says that in light of the recent lead scare, the report offers a clear assessment of the district’s trouble spots.

“I think it really does highlight a lot of the problems, the effects of which we are seeing right now,” Anthony says. “What are the odds that a crisis of some kind was going to come up?”PORTLAND TRIBUNE GRAPHIC: KEITH SHEFFIELD - Risk Assessment

Portland Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment.

The draft risk assessment, completed by the Lake Oswego-based firm TKW in April, lists 12 “very high risk” areas of district management.

These are areas in which the district could suffer enormous consequences, such as injury, budget overruns, non-compliance with laws or policies or damage to public perception. The assessment confirms that managing 89 schools and programs is a risky business.

But the assessment shows the administration has done little in these areas to mitigate the risk — activities where there is no internal reporting, individuals make decisions ad hoc, and management hasn’t developed nor implemented practices, policies or procedures, the report states.

Many of the highest priorities for corrective action in the report have to do with planning for the future and the eventuality of the unexpected — mistakes, loss and disaster.

Auditors called out the lack of a business continuity plan that would enable the district to react to sudden changes, such as human error, natural disasters and technology failures.

Also, they saw a lack of a strategic plan that would identify operational goals and how to achieve them. The report states that the district does have a strategic plan for educational instruction, but not one for other aspects of the district, such as supports, facilities and stakeholders.

The district also is hampered by an inability to respond proactively to staff leaving or retiring, the report states.

“Transition plans, cross-training and documented procedures have not been established,” reads the risk assessment, authored by TKW Executive Partner Brad Rafish.

Add, to all that, the district’s thin rainy day fund. The 2016-17 budget calls for just 2.5 percent going into reserves. PPS board policy is to aim for at least 3 percent; accounting firms recommend more like 10 percent.

Anthony says the next steps are for the audit committee to make recommendations to the board for correcting some of these fundamental problems and identifying who is responsible for them.

“Some of them are clearly the responsibility of the superintendent. I think some of them are clearly the responsibility of the board,” he says.

Accountability rating worrisome

Perhaps the most worrisome criticism is in the area of accountability.

After asserting that accountability starts at the top with the board and the superintendent, the report says that the central administration has devolved into silos of departments that don’t work well together. This is either through lack of communication, lack of clear guidelines and roles, frequent turnover of employees, or a lack of consequences.

“School principals operate as autonomous entities much of the time and, without consistent information, training and consequences, their actions are in effect reinforced,” the report reads.

The report also points out worries over security measures, particularly at the Blanchard Education Service Center where most administrators work. In school buildings, the security rating is much better, but the report also notes that School Emergency Response Plans have yet to be tested and not everyone knows they even exist.

Auditors found that student body funds tend to be managed by amateurs who don’t have much oversight or training to handle the sums. The report continues: “Significant reliance on school-based staff with potentially little or no capacity, training or competence to adequately manage or account for these funds increases the risk of theft or loss.”

The human resources department needs a technology upgrade, auditors found, and its software and reliance on outdated spreadsheets and even manual processes on paper underlines its inability to function efficiently.

New board raises risk, confusion

The report notes that the relatively inexperienced board — four of the seven directors were seated less than a year ago — hasn’t yet developed a common vision for governance of the district. Their reactionary tendency creates a lot of confusion.

“Without the development and communication of a clear vision based on core values and beliefs of the district and community, uncertainty has developed amongst staff and stakeholders as to intent, philosophy, and decision making,” the report reads.

These are just some of the worst-managed and highest-priority areas. The report also calls out 12 more areas where “potential serious risks are likely to occur.”

One of these is in district perception. The report notes that the district has many diverse interest groups, sometimes with competing viewpoints, who scrutinize the district closely, resulting in more polarization.

Auditors say the media also have a key role to play in the district’s success.

“Media can direct public opinion by the way ‘a story is told,’ ” the report reads. “PPS may face a credibility problem created because of how its approach is reported.”

The district’s Office of Community Involvement and Public Affairs, which is in charge of communication with the media and the public, received a relatively good rating of 3.1 — a moderate level of risk, but for the most part, policies and procedures are in place and being followed.

Only one category received a rating of a “low-moderate risk,” meaning that best practices are used, monitored and updated. That was in purchasing, the department of which is directed by Emily Courtnage.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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