Friday, September 4, 2015

Open Letter

Happy Friday! Here is my open letter to the School Board on Information Security, Teacher Retention, Metrics, and Budgeting - all for the Sept. 8 discussion of priorities and the work plan.


Phil Reitinger
Falls Church
September 4, 2015


School Board Members (by Email)


Dear School Board Members,

I am writing regarding the Board Priorities (the Mission, Vision and Strategies from the Triennial Plan) and the Staff Work Plan, currently under consideration by the Board.   I will refer to these documents as the Priorities and the Work Plan, respectively.

Information Security and Internet Safety

FCCPS has a small information technology staff dealing with many important issues, including the Personalized Learning Initiative.  As you are aware, the increasing use of technology in the schools, while critical for 21st Century learning, raises significant risks that need to be addressed.  An external audit or analysis could be of considerable assistance to the Board and the schools, which have no dedicated information security person.  However, the Priorities and the Work Plan differ on the certainty of conducting such an audit, with the language in the Work Plan conditional at best.  In addition, I suggest the focus not be on technology alone but risk, and how it is to be addressed – for example, the risk that a student might be exposed to inappropriate material can be addressed through many means, including technology, practices, and personnel.  I suggest these documents say the following:

Priorities: Conduct an external information security and Internet safety assessment by June 2016, and establish a risk-mitigation plan with specific goals and performance metrics by December 2016.
Work Plan: Prepare an RFP and solicit bids on an information security and Internet safety risk assessment with the assessment completed by June 2016, and thereafter establish a draft risk-mitigation plan with specific goals and performance metrics and present it to the Board by November 2016.

In order to better protect students, the schools are working on being able to adjust filtering of Internet content by school, but that is just a start toward enabling much more tailored (and regularly updated) controls that support both education and safety.  The Work Plan should say:

Work Plan: Enable filtering of Internet content by grade level (at a minimum) by September 2016.  Rigorously track and report on usage and incident statistics.  Review and refine the filtering rules and monitoring practices at least twice a year with parent representation, beginning by December 2015.

I also believe that the current information technology staff needs a dedicated information security person to monitor usage and respond to incidents, and to manage reporting and enable oversight.  Therefore, I suggest modifying one element of the Work Plan as follows:

Work Plan: Continue to evaluate staffing needs for technology system‐wide.  Utilize data from the technology ticket system to analyze type of need, frequency, and time to resolve issues at all levels (June 2016).  Hire a dedicated information security and Internet Safety staff member by December 2015.

Teacher Retention and Recruitment

Both the Priorities and Work Plan raise the issue of teacher compensation.  Keeping our great teachers, and hiring new ones, is the most important job for the Board and school system.  However, both the Priorities and Work Plan talk only about compensation, and not the larger issues of retention and recruitment, which can vary based on other factors.   I suggest that the Board set clear performance goals for teacher and staff retention – a goal of 6% would match the lowest turnover rate (from 2009) during recent years –  and that the reasons for turnover and declined offers of employment be tracked and addressed.  Therefore, I suggest that both the Priorities and Work Plan say:

Priorities and Work Plan: Limit professional staff leaving FCCPS to 6% per year, and track and report on reasons for staff departures or declination of offers of employment.

Goals and Metrics

While a few of the Priorities and Work Plan elements are quantitative, many are binary (for example, they list one thing to do) or are incapable of measurement.  I understand that the Work Plan, in particular, is intended to be a series of “Key Action Steps,” but some are so general that is difficult to determine not only if the action has been successful but even whether it has been taken.  For example, “Continue emphasis on ESOL planning and strategies PK‐12 (June 2016)” is nearly content free.  These document would be improved by increasing their specificity and measurability, by reviewing at the same as the metrics that will be used to judge success, and tracking and publishing the specific data that will be used to generate metrics or judge completion of steps.

Responsible Fiscal Management and Budgeting

With the effort to define a vision for the schools of the future, the time has come for a full review of the budget and an analysis of whether current programs, expenditures, and contracts continue to be of value.  It is my experience that, especially in government, budgets can continue to grow over time and that more focus can be put on establishing new programs and distributing any cuts by percentage (salami slicing) rather than stopping programs that are not cost effective.  A full review of the budget, assigning costs to each program and focused on the value returned, would be a very useful effort in this time of growing needs and fiscal constraints.  This effort is in alignment with Work Plan Priority 6.0.  The language to do this could take different forms, such as:

Priorities and Work Plan: From September 2015 to March 2016 conduct a full budget review, assigning costs to ongoing and future programs, map costs to the contribution of each program toward Board goals and metrics, and revise the budget accordingly.

Conclusion
Thank you very much for your consideration of these comments.

                                                                                      Very truly yours,

                                                                                      Phil Reitinger

cc: Superintendent Toni Jones
      Clerk Hunter Kimble

      Deputy Clerk Marty Gadell

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