Field Trip: Making School Happen
While most people might picture buses, crowded hallways, and teachers working in bustling classrooms, the behind-the-scenes work is just as vital. All the work that goes into making school happen: recruiting and hiring teachers, custodians, coaches, bus drivers, food service employees, nurses, and everyone else who makes it possible to open school each day. Onboarding those employees, and providing ongoing professional learning opportunities. Ensuring substitutes are in classrooms. Making sure supplies are ordered. Running payroll. Scheduling bus routes.
Part of operating an organization as complex as a school district is ensuring that the right information gets to the right people, so they can work efficiently and make the best decisions. That requires technology, getting departments to work together, and quite often, managing change.
In this episode, we speak with Dr. Russell Miller, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources for Andover Public Schools in Kansas, about his district’s efforts to implement new processes and software systems to be more effective and work across departments more easily. We cover:
- The biggest blockers to efficiency and effectiveness in school administration
- How they brought their software systems together to move away from paper and make information more readily accessible
- How systems thinking helps his team hire and onboard more effectively
- How to get buy-in from other stakeholders to make a change
- What’s needed to effectively implement a new software system
- The impact all of this has on serving students and staff
- Change Management in K-12: What You Need to Know
- Change Management in K-12: Six Change Management Models
Hiring, onboarding, compliance, tracking absences, finding substitutes… it’s all in a day’s work for human resources departments at school districts around the country. And it’s all in service of making school happen.
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: We’ve got great people that are here and they’re working their tails off every single day. How can we make their lives better, more efficient, more effective?
So today we’re looking at one district that set out to make sure that principals, supervisors, hiring managers, and other leaders have the information, the data, and the processes they need to hire and support teachers and staff, and help them grow — and what it takes to get people on board with everything they’re doing.
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: This is change process. Anybody that knows anything about the change process knows it takes time. It takes multiple iterations. It takes patience. It takes rattling cages and moving some cheese occasionally. And that’s okay, too.
From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: All right. My name is Russell Miller. I serve as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources for Andover Public Schools.
In case you’re wondering, that’s Andover, Kansas.
RUSSELL MILLER: It’s always important we throw the Kansas in there because we uh, occasionally get applications and inquiries from Massachusetts and lots of other places that have Andovers. Beginning my fifth year in Andover. I’ve been around the block a few times and I’m actually starting my 39th year in public ed.
So what all does an Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources at a school district do?
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: [Laughs] oh, that I was only to do HR! I joke with my superintendent occasionally that my title should be Assistant Superintendent of Other Duties as Assigned, just because of the plethora of things that I end up involved in in our district.
The HR function is obviously a huge part of my job, and all things connected to personnel, evaluation, onboarding, offboarding, hiring, termination, benefits connection with payroll, contracts, all of those issues there that come at you all the time, you’re just dealing with them. We always tend to think that there will be a time where we’ll kind of get a little bit of a rest from the onboarding process, and certainly this time of year is busier than most, but we never really stop hiring and onboarding and orienting and doing all of those things connected to HR.
When most people think about school, they think about kids tumbling off of buses in the morning, bouncing into the building. They think about teachers, and whiteboards, and all the stuff that happens in classrooms. They think about sports, and band, and clubs. They probably don’t think about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making school happen. I asked Dr. Miller, what’s one thing about the work that he and his team do, that he wishes people could see.
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: We have a running joke in central office. I experienced this in my prior roles also, but it’s no different here in Andover, that you get to a point where you go, “If one more person asks me what I did over the summer, I’m going to smack them!” You know, it’s just like, “Well, everybody’s off in the summer, nothing really happens.” And they don’t realize exactly what you’re saying, all the things that happen to make sure that that bus goes out to pick up kids, to make sure that food is ordered to serve to kids at lunchtime and that there are cooks there to prepare that food, and there are custodians that are coming in after school to sweep and mop and clean bathrooms.
I like to look at our role collectively, whether it’s in HR business office, finance, curriculum and instruction, food service, operations, maintenance, I mean there’s a whole lot of stuff that honestly makes school happen. And if we didn’t have these functions, we wouldn’t have teachers in classrooms. We wouldn’t have supplies for them to use. We wouldn’t have a clean classrooms for them to teach in. So I think overall it’s just every day, what have we done to make that process better and to make sure that we have the right people in the right place doing the right thing at the right time?
And those connections to the overall mission, it certainly continues to be the education and instruction and the development of kids. That’s the rubber meets the road in those classrooms every single day, and we never forget that. And hopefully everything we do helps that happen.
So that’s the goal: helping to make school happen. But, as you know, all of that stuff that happens behind the scenes, it takes work. It takes bringing people together. It takes technology. It takes data to help make decisions. It takes managing change. That’s the direction our conversation today is going. And in order to get there, we need to take a look at the things that stand in the way of effectiveness.
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: I think there’s a variety of things that can, possibly serve as impediments to any of us being as effective as we would like to be in the HR world and whether that’s hiring teachers or rewarding long time staff or trying to fill a tech support vacancy, money is a major driver, very often, in public ed. It’s, “How can I compete with the private sector?” that’s getting more and more difficult. So that certainly on the salary and benefits side is a challenge that you work to make better and to be competitive, to also encourage people to look at the intangibles about your district and how wonderful you are to work for, and a great place to be, or raise a family.
But, Dr. Miller said, it’s not just money that keeps HR — or indeed, any department in a school district — from being effective. One huge issue, he said, is when different departments like human resources, the business office, curriculum & instruction, professional development, do their work in isolation from each other. When they work in silos.
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: And we create those silos for good reason. We don’t want me making curriculum decisions. That’s not my gift, my role, my focus. Likewise, we probably don’t want to maintenance or operations director making hiring decisions about teachers.
So we end up with some fairly disconnected parts of the organization, departmentally or within the overall structure of the district that I think makes it a challenge. And then I believe related to that, Ryan, is the also-siloed approach to applications that we often have in terms of technology and processes, not even just technology, but processes that we use within departments or divisions of an organization. And the more of those things that we have that operate completely independently without any kind of effort to tie in or integrate with other systems, the more challenging it becomes.
So, what are those challenges? Sure, it often makes sense for people to stay in their own lanes. But what’s the downside to having those silos? When you get down to it, how does not having the right technology or processes to connect departments together, ultimately come back to bite you?
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: I think the downside comes when an organization purposefully makes sure that those lanes never merge and that those silos stay intact. It maybe best to provide an example of that. An experience that we had here in Andover was when we were working through some integration issues and trying to make things work better. We had HR keeping track and being in control of some data. We had the payroll department, which is under the business function keeping and controlling some data. And then we had our tech department and our student information system folks also in charge of and controlling some data.
And the problem was that the data that was being controlled was duplicated in three separate systems, but it wasn’t the same. And so when you’re trying to look up an emergency contact for a teacher who became ill, you go to your HR system and you have a phone number that’s disconnected, or is no longer in service, or they changed cell phones or whatever. And you’re chasing your tail and you find out, “Well, no, I told the secretary and she updated it in the SIS.” I’m going like, “I don’t live in SIS. I don’t go there to look for your phone number.”
They clearly had some stuff to work out — who owns the data? Who makes the changes? And working through this, configuring their software to help them manage it, was a learning process. And a change process.
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: One of my favorite books of all time is Who Moved My Cheese? And anytime that you’re playing around with change, you start moving cheese. And we certainly did that because we even took away user permissions that had been granted to particular people, because we determined that that was a cause of some disconnected data and we needed to pull it back in.
I’m all for site-based decision-making. And the further away you are from the district office, the more you are in favor of site-based decision-making. And I recall that well, being a building principal for years and years, I didn’t want people telling me what to do and, you know, “Let me do my thing.”
And the longer you’re in the central administration setting, no matter how large your school district may be, whether it’s a district of five to six thousand like Andover or a district of 40 or 50,000, you’ve still got these processes that are very much similar and driving the same type data mismatch.
We just had to come back and say, “We know you’ve always taken care of updating that field and all of that for your campus, but we’re not going to do it that way anymore.” And people, you know, they either stay grumpy or they get over it and move on. And that was certainly our experience, just trying to go, ” This needs to be controlled centrally. We need to have some sort of systemic connection to this data in order to make it make sense and to be as accurate as we possibly can.”
RYAN ESTES: I want to think about processes a little bit more and talk about that, specifically as it relates to systems thinking, which you have done some presenting about, because our whole conversation today is really about systems — not just software systems, but thinking about how any system functions. Can you share a little bit about your view of systems thinking, how you define it, and what it looks like in school administration?
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: I was trying to think how to best explain that. I’ve always been intrigued, and I think that’s why I was drawn to leading some of the change efforts that I’ve been involved in this district and in other districts prior to this, it’s just kind of the way I think. And so looking at a system of schools, not as individual schools and offices and departments and buildings, but a system of schools, we have that discussion at times, whether it’s a classroom or a school building or a piece of equipment, “That does not belong to you. That’s not your school. It belongs to the school district. That classroom is not yours. You’re allowed to teach there.”
So the overarching umbrella of, all of these things are connected, and everything that happens across the scope of the district needs to have a level of systemic lens.
What happens in transportation impacts 10 different schools in our district. So one school can’t just randomly change their beginning and ending times because it messes up routes for the rest of the elementary schools. So, how are those things connected? What level of decisions can be, site-based, but what needs to have that systemic lens, whether it’s in staffing, making decisions on how many people you have to spread across a number of schools and how they’re divided, if they’re itinerant and making decisions on how custodial staff are going to be allocated around the district. Do you do that just by the same number at each school? Or do you look at square footage and responsibilities and outside activities? That has to have a systemic lens in order to make that decision.
So that drove a lot of– I’ve always been intrigued with it. Even as a building principal, I felt like I had a pretty decent systemic lens when I would have conversations with my colleagues and other administrators. And what I realized after I came to central office, I was like, “Holy cow, I did not have any idea all the parts and pieces that were being thrown together and juggled and manipulated in order to make sure that I had everything I needed to be a an effective principal.
RYAN ESTES: Thinking about systems, I’d love to hear you talk about that specifically as it relates to hiring, say a new teacher, and someone might approach that process just as it comes: “Yeah, we’ve got to post a position, okay. I suppose now we need an interview and now we’ve got to do the review,” but how does having a system for this help you be more strategic, more effective, more efficient, and ultimately make sure you have the right person in the right classroom, because you’ve gone about it in a systematic way.
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: One of the biggest drivers for me, I believe is the efficiency argument. It’s actually not been too many years ago that I applied for a position in my previous job. When I applied in that district, the application was a PDF form that you downloaded off the district website to fill out. I was appalled not only that I had to fill something out by hand because my handwriting is so poor and I would much rather do it on a computer. It wasn’t even a fillable PDF. That was when I was like, “Okay, we’re going to make some changes.” And then we started going down the road of getting an applicant tracking system in place to automate some of that process and to have some centralized control in it, along the way, but even connected to that, in that prior life that was not that many years ago, it was probably 10 years ago now, if I think back that far, but if a principal wanted to review applications, they had to make time to come down to central office and go through a file folder and look at paper applications, paper, resumes, paper letters of reference, all of that kind of thing.
So when you think about the total lack of efficiency there, as well as having to be the gatekeeper of, “No, you can’t take that file with you. I have to have that here because Sally has a vacancy in third grade also, and she needs to look at that file,” it was incredibly inefficient. So moving to an applicant tracking system allowed us flexibility that we’d never had before. And the efficiency of that along the way of, I can jump in and review applications when I have a minute during the day or at lunch or in the morning while I’m drinking my coffee or in the evening after I got home, I can log in and look at applications, I can review resumes, I can run through references and kind of get an idea of who’s in the pool. And having that accessibility as an administrator, just with a quick log-in, was invaluable. And that was a real short sell. I’ll tell you when we first implemented an applicant tracking system in my previous district, overnight it was like, “Oh my God, why did we wait so long to do this?” So that’s been really helpful.
The other part connected to that though is the process. And I would say the process probably looks different from district to district to district. What we’ve tried to do is just lay out a number of steps and if a principal or a supervisor, hiring manager, whatever lingo you want to use there, if they have a vacancy, a bonafide vacancy, because somebody resigned , retired, or maybe they’ve gotten some additional allocations, they submit a requisition for that. They’re not calling down to HR and asking us to post that position. They’re starting that process, so that comes through. That comes to me to review and approve and edit as I see fit, then it moves on to the next step. Then it gets posted. And all of that, it involves the person who started the requisition, myself, and my HR specialists.
So there are three people involved, but it happens independent of one another in a sequential manner. And that job gets posted, usually, within 24 hours of it being submitted. It’s out there in various places, wherever we happen to have it besides our own applicant tracking system. And then likewise, that supervisor, that hiring manager, has the ability to monitor applications along the way. Set a closing date, go in and review, make determinations about who they’re going to interview.
As much as I love systemic approach, what I don’t like is to micromanage that process. We’re a very small department in terms of our district, we’ve got about 5,800 kids k-12, pre-K to 12, and we’ve got a virtual school and nearly 700 full-time employees. But our district office footprint is extremely small. We do not have very many people running the central office function in our district. So frankly, I don’t have time to prescreen every applicant that comes in for a teaching position or a custodial position or a food service position. We leave that process of going through applications and making determinations on who’s going to be interviewed, that’s up to the hiring manager.
And then we, you know, we certainly expect them to follow policy and procedures and things like that along the way, and the regular guidance that HR folk like me put out, and the questions you can ask and the questions you can’t ask, and non-discriminatory practices and all of that has to be in place. But in the end, they’re making a recommendation to us on who we’re going to hire. And we typically don’t second guess that. My principals who are, you know, if they’re hiring an eighth grade math teacher or a fourth grade classroom teacher or a high school CTE teacher, they know what their needs are. I don’t want to make the decision for them in terms of who they’re going to hire for that position, but once they’ve made that decision, we’re here then to take that and run it through the rest of the process.
Once the hiring manager has made that decision, Dr. Miller and his team run with it, on through onboarding and setting them up for a successful career.
Submitting the recommendation to hire and that approval process really is just the beginning. And certainly one of the first things we do is a background check before any official job offer is made. But you know, once that has confirmed that we’re good to go and an offer has been accepted, it kicks over to onboarding, and then that process kind of takes on a life of its own.
I mean, we’ve got a lot of information to gather on a new hire, between payroll forms and direct deposit and policy requirements and payroll taxes and sign-offs for this, that, and the other related to becoming an employee. There’s just a lot of paperwork up front, benefits sign up, employee orientation, getting an email address, network access, all of those things get triggered with that onboarding process.
Once we get all of that done and they’re ready to move on to orientation at their department or building level or wherever they may be, we kind of hand that process off to that hiring manager, supervisor, principal. They take it from there, but certainly our job doesn’t end at that point. We are tracking lots of data through our centralized HR filing, our digital filing cabinet. We’ve got all of those parts and pieces, whether it’s contracts or work agreements or acceptable use policies. All of those things are ongoing: professional learning, professional development, evaluation, that continues on and on and is housed in those systems.
About that digital filing. Dr. Miller said that everyone hired since about 3 years ago has a personnel file that’s pretty much entirely digital. Which is great — but it’s a process. They have several decades worth of hires and filing cabinets that they’re also working on converting to digital. Because, when that information is digitized, it’s a lot easier to use.
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: In fact, I had this conversation with a principal end of last school year, I think it was. She had a question on a teacher’s salary placement due to a discussion that they were having at her school. And I told her, I said, “Are you at your computer?” And she said yes. So I had her log in to our system and I said, ” Look up her name.” She said, “Okay, I’m there.” I said, “Do you see the personnel documents tab?” “Yeah.” I said, “Click that.” She clicked on it. The next thing I heard was, “Wow. I had no idea we had access to this!” Her contract was right there, her placement on the salary schedule was right there, and she had access to it. But she wasn’t used to having access to it, and we had never really made a point of going, “You guys have all of this stuff right there, anytime you need it.” That’s a shift in thinking and process right there.
Bringing about systems-level change isn’t easy. People are protective of the systems they use, the processes that they have, and change can be disruptive. I asked Dr. Miller how he went about getting buy-in from not just his district leadership, but from the people who would ultimately use the system they put in place. And he said that when he first arrived at the district, before they switched to Frontline, at least people could acknowledge that the systems and processes they were using at the time weren’t working as well as they needed them to be. That was the starting point, getting people to agree that, “Here’s where we are. And the system that the business office is using is separate from the system that the technology department is using, which is separate from the system that HR is using. That’s not what we need.”
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: We even within HR had two different systems going for whether a person was licensed or classified. So taking stock of what you have is so critical. And I think also not always just looking for what’s not working, but the whole appreciative inquiry side of, “What’s working well?”
You know, number one, we’ve got great people that are here and they’re working their tails off every single day. How can we make their lives better, more efficient, more effective? This system works great. You know what? It can stand alone in its own silo because nobody needs it, and we honestly don’t want anybody to touch it. But here’s another couple that, boy, it sure would be nice if those two things could talk to each other. How can we make that happen?
So really that first step of taking an assessment of what you have, what it’s for, how it works, what you’re doing with that information, is just critical. And then developing some sort of vision. What does that, what could that look like? What do we need it to do? What would we like it to do, if we could wave a magic wand and have everything fixed tomorrow? And that’s kind of what we did here in Andover, was just looked at the variety of systems that we had and began to look at, “You know, we’re duplicating some efforts here, even within HR, we’re doing two different things. That needs to stop. We need to have one process that we use for everybody.” And so we made some decisions there. In that process, we actually were able to cancel a multi thousand dollar contract on software that was a duplication of effort and unnecessary. So making those decisions was, was critical.
And developing that vision for what could be. And then also working to say, “How do we get there?” Because one of the challenges that we have any time in these systems, Ryan, is we can’t shut the office down for three months while we take down a new system and bring up a new system and learn how to use it.
So, you know, back to the metaphor a prior superintendent of mine used, you’re working on the on the jet while it’s rolling down the runway on takeoff. And that’s what it felt like. I mean, we are making decisions and changing systems and adopting new systems and decommissioning other systems and having some transition time and overlap. That’s all happening at the same time. And that’s an incredible challenge, and you’ve gotta have people that are really committed to the long-term goal and the short-term pain that they’re going to endure for that process.
I think it’s, it is so incredibly critical that the organizational leadership have knowledge and be aware of the challenges that exist across the organization. And the blessing that we had was even with some members or folks in our district not quite sharing the same comfort with technology and integration that I had, they knew that that’s where we needed to go. There was an acknowledgement that, “Yeah, we need to move forward. We are still in the 1960s here and we need to get moving.”
RYAN ESTES: So when we think about implementing software like this, obviously it’s always easier to say, “Boy, if I’d have known then what I know now about building this jet while it’s running down the runway.” What are some things that you would say for anyone looking to implement a piece of software like this, to help them do it well, do it more effectively and make it for a smoother ride?
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: Well, I think that first of all, back to that clear vision of what you want to have happen at the end of the process, that if you don’t know where you’re going and you’re just kinda making stuff up as you go along, it’s not going to end well. In fact, it may never actually end. You know, those are the times you have efforts that start and just fail or get bookshelved because somebody doesn’t have time to do it.
But knowing where that goal is, where you’re wanting to get to, realizing that you are making a long-term commitment, this is not a flip the switch moment, this is change process. Anybody that knows anything about the change process knows it takes time. It takes multiple iterations. It takes patience. It takes rattling cages and moving some cheese occasionally. And that’s okay, too. But knowing where you want to go.
And then I think related to that, then backward mapping a timeline of how to get there and making sure that that timeline is realistic, knowing that at the same time you’re trying to do that work, you’re still doing your regular job. I’ve still got angry parents calling in, dealing with complaints and the public concerns. And that’s a part of my job, dealing with legal and policy questions from principals. That stuff doesn’t stop. So I have to be able to juggle all of those pieces and give myself enough grace and enough time in building that timeline, and that’s critical. Certainly having enough people is a part of that process and acknowledging who you have, what their responsibilities are, and what you’re asking them to do. It’s critical. You, you can’t just dump all that on somebody that’s already got a 60 hour a week job that they’re doing in 40 hours. So being realistic is so critical.
Being willing to invest some additional resources. Maybe that means you need to hire somebody temporarily to take a little load off of somebody that you’re delegating some implementation process to.
I think the other thing that has been helpful for me along the way, and I believe I’ve maybe served in this role for others, is seeking out in your network people who have been through similar experiences. While we are all in different districts, the jobs are a little different: how many employees you have where you’re located, what kind of organizational structure do you have. There’s 286 school districts in Kansas. I can guarantee you there are 286 different ways to take care of human resources in our state. But there are other people in my professional network who have gone through similar practices that I am stepping into. So taking the time to network and learn from others that have gone through a similar process, even if it’s not the same software or application that you’re implementing, just learning what worked for you. How did you manage the workload versus the implementation?
Reach out to those professional colleagues and resources that you have. Certainly we have a tremendous relationship with Frontline and I have relied on, on that customer service connection heavily through not only implementation, but ongoing use of products.
It’s an ongoing process, of course. There is always more to do, additional ways to improve. But my last question for Dr. Miller was simple: what’s the outcome? These integrated systems, these clearer processes, digital files, better workflows and all of that, all of this change that they’ve driven, how does it make their jobs better? How does it allow his team, his district, to serve teachers, staff, and students more effectively?
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: I think that we’re better serving our customers. Kind of the driving force for me personally in everything that we’re about is a spirit of service. We serve our employees and our applicants and we need to do that well. We need to be a resource for our hiring managers and for anyone who’s got questions, whether it’s an applicant or a supervisor or a board member. That’s our job.
So I believe these systems and developing a stronger integrated system and process behind the system has allowed us to serve better and serve more efficiently. My hiring managers, principals, supervisors, other administrators, have access to more information now than they ever had previously when everything used to be locked in personnel filing cabinets. They’ve got a quick review of sometimes dozens of applicants for a single position, and they don’t have to wait on us to send them copies. So that system approach and the digital footprint makes their jobs easier because they’re not chasing data. They’ve got access to it when they need it, at whatever time they need it. They can do it at 9:30 at night or 2:00 in the morning if that’s when they choose to review applications. That’s okay. I think it has just helped us to be more effective and efficient and allow better collaboration.
What it has allowed us is, not only do we have the technology system in place, but it has allowed us to build a process that involves multiple people, but everybody knows what the process is.
And we’ve worked hard to do some overlap training. So if somebody is out on vacation, a process doesn’t stall, somebody can pick it up. But we can take that person that’s being hired and move them through the process fairly quickly and make sure everything gets done along the way, that used to maybe take a couple of weeks, because it’s shifting from this person to this person in a file folder or an email gets sent, and then somebody is updating a Google form, and then a school secretary has to enter something at the site level. That’s gone.
So that’s handled by fewer people and there’s a defined process. That enables us to go quicker, which then allows people that are being hired to be in their positions sooner. And that benefits our school, our departments, our district along the way.
RYAN ESTES: Dr. Russell Miller is Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources at Andover Public Schools in Kansas. Dr. Miller, thank you for taking an hour of your time today. It’s been great to talk to you and I’m grateful that you’ve shared your experiences.
DR. RUSSELL MILLER: My pleasure, Ryan, thank you for the opportunity.
Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, the leading provider of school administrative software. That includes Frontline HRMS, part of Frontline’s human capital management suite. Frontline HRMS is designed to help your HR team quickly recruit, hire, and onboard great talent, as well as drive compensation, benefits, and position management. For more information, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.