NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Public Schools needs to be more responsive to its employees and to its potential employees, two consultants said. The district’s website needs to highlight the “higher salaries” paid to teachers, as a recruitment tool.
Paul Tate and Tatia Prieto of Prismatic Services outlined steps NPS can take to attract and retain staff members, based on the work they’ve done since February. While some of the recommendations presented at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting were aimed at increasing diversity hires, Human Resources Director Lissette Colon said NPS has already made progress in that area.
“I keep hearing we need to increase diversity,” she said. “Well, I think we’re doing phenomenal in comparison to the state average.”
Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon praised some recommendations but questioned the characterization of “high salaries.”
“It is true that when you look at our salary schedule, we have some of the top salaries around,” she said. “However, our for example, our doctoral candidates are on a salary with 33 steps, it is almost impossible to be on step 33… Although we have some of the top salaries in the state, very few are able to be paid those salaries.”
Survey draws criticisms
Tate, a former assistant superintendent for human resources in Mobile, Ala., said Prismatic spent five days in Norwalk. Prieto, Prismatic founder, said the visit included 35 in-person interviews, virtual interviews and focus groups. An electronic survey drew 585 responses.
Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten questioned that rate, calling it “about 600 responses from about 2000 employees.”
Prieto said K-12 school staff nationwide have survey fatigue, in light of all the questions they’ve been asked during COVID-19. “These results are not bad,” she said. “They were enough for us to work with, especially since we did get a good breakdown in terms of different roles and length of employment in the district.”
Tate noted that NPS has challenges in meeting its contractual pay raises and “high turnover, especially among teachers, is a problem.”
“If we have difficulty attracting diverse candidates and we don’t keep them … then we are going to continue to have ‘minus direction’ in regard to our diversity hiring,” he said. But, “the principals told us, in focus groups, that they were 100% fully staffed on the first instructional day for students. And that is a plus-plus.”
Employees, “as a whole,” reported via the survey that “the responses that they got from a Human Resources were two kinds,” he said. “Number one, no response, and number two, responding after it was far too late.”
There’s been turnover in HR, which is a challenge, he said. But it’s “incredible” that NPS has a staff person in charge of human resources information services (HRIS) and “also unusual” to find in-house legal HR counsel. And, “We saw excellent examples of HR collaboration with finance and payroll.”
Prieto said HR is missing “what we would consider to be foundational elements.” She outlined seven high priority recommendations but said two have already been done, since Prismatic departed in April, and three are being worked on.
“It’s not uncommon in a district that is seeking to improve, or the wording I use in my head is always ‘on the move,’ we typically see that some of our recommendations are in the process of being implemented by the time we get to the reporting stage to the board. And that’s a good sign,” she said.
An employment opportunity button has been added to the NPS website opening page and the district needs to continue developing HR-rich content for its website, she said.
NPS is seeking to send its offer letters to recommended new hires quicker, she said. Nationally, there are less new teachers and, “one of the ways that we lose teachers is if we don’t get back to them quickly, especially new teachers who are, you know, just coming out of college need to land a job.”
Hosten asked how quick the letters should go out and Tate said, “The sooner the better.” It’s traditionally within a day but some Norwalk principals said it can take up to two weeks.
“Great teachers are hard to find and you need to remove every barrier to grabbing the great ones that you can, and this would certainly be one of them,” Prieto said. “If I were a teacher out looking for a job, and I had five interviews, but, you know, one district got back to me within 24 hours and said, ‘we love you so much we want you,’ I might not wait for the other districts to get back to me.”
That’s a “great goal,” Yordon said.
Board member Heidi Keyes asked about letters going to candidates who are turned down and Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said those go out “within a few hours of that decision.”
Other recommendations, SpEd concerns; ‘too Black’
Tate and Prieto also spoke of a need to upgrade Munis, a program that handles government data functions.
“The Mayor and I have started conversations about upgrading the current version that we have because a lot of the things that you were talking about… can easily be addressed with the new versions of Munis,” Estrella said.
The consultants also spoke of upgrading job descriptions. Board member Suzanne Koroshetz offered “kudos” for that because “I think some of them are probably from the 1960s or 70s. So those folks are doing nothing like what’s on their paperwork.”
Estrella said that effort is underway.
Board member Erica DePalma asked about Special Education hiring, noting “a significant teacher shortage in the state.”
“In terms of creating a more diversified workforce?” Prieto asked. She said Norwalk needs to promote its diverse population because “You don’t normally think of a district in Connecticut as being highly diverse are in terms of student body. And I think that it needs to be part of the conversation in terms of hiring.”
Yordon said that according to the State Department of Education, “there were almost 2000 Special Education teachers who were not employed. And we have less of a shortage than a shortage of people willing to continue.”
She said “I think the more we continue to overwork and overwhelm our special educators, the more we’ll continue to have the problem that many districts have to recruit special educators. These are highly litigious positions, sometimes in those environments, with much more pressure than others.”
Prieto also recommended “budgeting to hire people when we find them, versus when we actually have the need,” a practice in the private sector. A new hire could come onboard months before a retiring teacher has their last day, as an example.
Yordon said, “Although we do have a program to reward early notification of a retirement, the position is often posted very late due to the long budget process. So to the extent that we can settle school based budgets earlier, we can post positions earlier.”
She lauded the recommendation for exit interviews, predicting “a lot of information” will result. That’s directly related to the desire for a diversified workforce and “hiring committees should be diverse.”
“We really need to commit to retain individuals who have not only a diverse background, but a diverse set of opinions, attitudes, experiences, and reactions, that all fall within a range of professionalism and the definition of professionalism,” Yordon said. “We are losing people of color at a higher rate than we lose white individuals.”
She reported that an exiting teacher told her, “I think I’m just too black to be a Norwalk teacher.” Yordon said, “I think we can do better, I’m happy to hear the commitment from this Board.”
Colon played radio ads HR has been using to market NPS as a work place and showed ads on diner placemats. She spoke of billboards on Interstate 95, advertising for Norwalk teachers, and said it provoked a sense of pride from NPS who passed them as well as competition from other districts.
NPS has QR codes out there and a beautiful brochure on the way, Colon said. A job fair might feature Common Council members and realtors so potential hires can get a feel for Norwalk.
NPS had 17.5% of its staff as people of color in 2019-20 while the state had 9.6%, she said. In 2020-21, that was 19.5% in Norwalk compared to 10.1% statewide.
The HR staff had a goal of increasing the percentage by 1% every year so it would go up 5% over five years and “we superseded that already,” Colon said. “We’re so proud of that and the school year is not even over.”