Springfield schools remain under construction through the $168 million Prop S initiative. What projects are underway now and what are the big wins staff are seeing in newly completed spaces?
We've been able to finalize Boyd Elementary, Delaware Elementary Fulbright Early Childhood, Sunshine, Elementary and Williams Elementary. And then the three that are currently in progress, the major projects are Hillcrest High School, which is a combination of renovation and new addition. All the renovation is complete, the new addition is in progress, Jarrett Middle School, which is a complete new construction, and then York Elementary, which is a complete new construction. It's important to note that Phase II of Hillcrest and York were slated to be in the next bond issue that would come up in April '23, but because we were able to get good pricing and just the fiscal management of the earlier projects, we were able to take these on in this initial phase. We're able to accomplish much more than what we originally anticipated. The big wins of our newer facilities is just the pride that the teachers, students and community have in the new facility, which then translates to the learning environment spaces that are designed for 21st century learning. When you try to take a building that was built in the '20s, '30s, '40s, sometimes earlier, and make it fit today's needs, it just doesn't always work. Right. Having classrooms and spaces designed for our current time and then just having the infrastructure to support the daily learning, those are the big messages that we hear from our people.
After violent, public outbreaks, The National School Boards Association asked the federal government to intervene to keep school board members and school staff safe amid growing tensions over issues like masking, vaccinations and curriculum. What's been the experience at SPS? Are additional safety measures needed?
Safety is always a priority of ours. There are people with very strong opinions on various topics, but we've been blessed that those people who have shared those concerns or voice those concerns have generally done it in a respectful manner. We just don't have that concern that the National School Boards Association is sounding at this point in time. At our board meetings, we do have an additional school police presence just as a precautionary preventative measure. Certainly we have an element of our population that does not believe we should be masking, but when we conducted our survey, it was about a two-third, one-third split where two-thirds of our parents and community were in favor of masking at this point in time. Certainly our focus is keeping kids in school and right now the one way we can do that is masking. Has there been any safety issues? No. Is there issues with compliance at times? Certainly.
Maintaining an adequate workforce is stressing all industries. How is that affecting SPS? And how are you handling the increased responsibilities placed on school staff amid the pandemic?
We are indeed facing the same labor challenges that every other employer in Springfield is facing. Then, you couple that with some of the things that are specifically unique to education. The remote learning at times; the masking requirements that we have … you add all those things up, there are certainly some additional stressors for our employees. Then, you couple that with our challenge of attracting employees because everybody's raising their wages. While we want to do that, we don't have the resources that a privately owned business does to just raise the wages. We're certainly assessing our wages specifically as it relates to support staff – that's where we're hurting the most. We do believe the end result is likely to be that we're going to have to decrease our services in some capacity or the quality of services. For instance, if we can't get drivers, we're probably going to have to reduce the transportation services we provide. We're at a point one quarter in that we may even have to take a look at the services we're offering this year up to this point because we continue to not be able to fill those driving positions. We actually have our 12-month office staff, about 10 day, are out driving routes. It's just not a sustainable model. There certainly have been concerns, valid concerns. As far as bus drivers go, we need about 25 to 30 bus drivers; we're short about 35 custodians (and) about 45 nutrition services workers. Then, we have a handful of teaching positions that are vacant. I think we've got in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 paraprofessionals or building aid positions that are open.
On the bus driver shortage, an SPS community survey found revised start/end times and the subsequent bus schedule was identified as a top concern. How and when do you plan to address that?
We do not anticipate making any changes for the current school year. We are, however, looking ahead to '22-'23 school year and we're going to be reengaging with the parents over the next few weeks to get their feedback. Definitely, that is a pain point for some in our community. The primary focus of moving to the three-tier model was to increase transportation services to students and then to help address bus driver shortage. We've done both. We've got about 2,000 additional students riding the bus this year over traditional years and we reduced the need for 25 routes, which equates to 25 drivers. The only way we can go back to a two-tier model and maintain our transportation services is to significantly increase the number of drivers that we have. And right now, that's just not happening. The ideal would be if we could just keep the three-tier but squeeze the time to where that last tier isn't starting so late.
At the last school board meeting, the BKD audit of SPS' human resources department was presented. What were the main pain points identified?
The Springfield school district for several years now has been committed to conducting internal audits to improve their processes. It's not required. There were really two major findings. One, our software systems could be significantly improved. Two, they made some suggestions around the structure of our HR department. We've actually already started the process of engaging our entire HR department. HR over the last 10, 15 years has changed so much. The knowledge base is so broad that a person has to have. What (BKD) is recommending is that we look at a model where you have specialists in each of these areas: benefits and compensation, talent acquisition, and then compliance. The one position they are recommending that we do not have is a human resources information systems specialist.
In your first year with the district, what are your top goals for this academic year and what about long-range plans for your role?
My primary goal for this first year is just to come in, learn the system, learn the history of where we've been and what our current trajectory is. No one wants anyone to come in and start changing things right away. My long-range goal is to simply support the school board, superintendent and the community and taking the vision that we have for our school district and making it a reality. I don't have any preconceived ideas or agendas that I want to see happen. And I think that's where a lot of leaders falter is they come in with things they want to see instead of what is good for our community, what is good for our school district. And I think it takes time to assess that and I think that’s what we’re doing right now under Dr. [Grenita] Lathan’s leadership. Of course, my side is the operational side of the house. So how can we financially or with other resources, with personnel make Springfield Public Schools the best it can be. It's a great group, and I'm really looking forward to the next several years.
John Mulford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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