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Audit finds serious backlogs at teacher licensing agency

Lawmakers ordered the Secretary of State to audit the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission after perennial problems at the agency.


SALEM — Mismanagement, outdated technology and staffing shortages at the state’s teacher licensing agency have resulted in four-month-long waits for teacher licenses, years-long investigations into teacher misconduct and poor morale, according to an audit by the Secretary of State’s Office.

“The licensing and customer service delays can damage the agency’s reputation, complicate school district hiring and make it harder on educators looking for jobs,” stated an audit report released Thursday.

The Legislature ordered the emergency audit in 2015 to address perennial problems at the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission.

Auditors, who released their report Thursday, gave the commission credit for making “recent improvements in service to educators.”

“But it still faces substantial backlogs in issuing licenses, investigating complaints against educators, and responding promptly to educator questions,” the report stated.

Mismanagement

Commission Executive Director Vickie Chamberlain, who, auditors said, received inadequate oversight from the 17-member commission, announced her retirement in early October in the midst of the audit. She agreed to stay on at the agency until a successor could be found.

Chamberlain said she is retiring "to spend more time with my grandchildren."

She told The Oregonian in October that the intensities of her job had been taking a toll on her.

Chamberlain said the job will be posted soon but gave no specific timeline. The Department of Administrative Services plans to handle the recruitment, which will be national in scope, she said.

“They would like a short transition with me and the new director,” she said.

Auditors have recommended that the agency set clearer goals to track performance of employees, including the executive director; make performance evaluations routine, and review and update policies, procedures and work processes for efficiency.

Staff shortages

Cuts to management and staff during the recession contributed to long delays in issuing licenses and responding to complaints. In 2012, the agency cut six positions.

Licensing staff lacked a direct manager for nearly two years, while investigators faced high turnover and high caseloads, according to the audit.

Technology

The agency’s outdated and “complicated” paper-based licensing system also contributed to delays. The commission’s website lacked basic information that could have provided answers to teacher’s licensing questions, the report stated.

The commission, in a response sent to the Secretary of State’s Office, largely agreed with the Secretary of State’s critique of the agency.

The commission indicated it plans to prioritize resolving backlogs in licensing and investigations and make changes to increase oversight of employees, enhance transparency and boost effectiveness.

An increase in license fees in 2015 — the first in 10 years — could help in addressing backlogs by allowing the agency to add four new staff positions and replace the archaic licensing system. The agency's budget operates solely on licensing fees. Starting Jan. 1., applicants were scheduled to be able to file applications and pay fees online.

Consumers are already seeing some improvements, the report indicated. The average call hold time fell from 30 minutes in 2014 to five minutes in the summer. Investigators are testing a new triage system to help reduce investigation lengths.

The agency, consisting of 26 employees, licenses 19,000 K-12 teachers a year and investigates hundreds of complaints against educators. The commission also is responsible for disciplining educators and evaluating education programs for teachers at Oregon colleges.

The full report is available here: http://sos.oregon.gov/audits/Documents/2016-04.pdf


By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
503-385-4899
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