By Lisa Nuss, OregonPEN
In a stunning move -- that may be a first for Oregon – the staff of a state agency have published a vote of no confidence in their executive director. In April 2015, TSPC staff gave legislators a copy of a 15-page memo written to their union titled “Request for Appointment of New Executive Director.” The memo is sent by a “Majority of Staff of Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC)” and TSPC staff assured legislators that a majority of staff have signed their names to this memo, although names were not disclosed in the copy given to OregonPEN.
If the data, presented in great detail with dates and names and specific budget information, is accurate, the memo paints the picture of an executive director who treats a public agency and its funds as her own personal fiefdom and treasury. These are details that only inside personnel could know. The memo makes clear that TSPC commissioners have stayed at bay, presumably as part of the executive director’s design to shun any real oversight.
If even a portion of these details prove to be accurate, they would corroborate the testimony given to the Oregon House Education Committee last spring by educators describing the harassment and incompetence they have experienced at the hands of TSPC; the memo's claims are also consistent with the BOLI findings of substantial evidence of employment discrimination at TSPC.
Does TSPC Director Chamberlain Keep Commission at Bay?
The memo states that the last time a TSPC commissioner set foot inside the TSPC office was in Fall 2011. The then-commission chair came of his own accord on a day that Executive Director Vickie Chamberlain was absent. When Chamberlain later found out about the unannounced commissioner visit, Chamberlain was “extremely upset.” The memo goes on to say, “No commissioner has since visited the agency to talk with staff or watch us work.”
If this is true, over the last four years the commission that is supposed to oversee the agency in fact knows nothing about the agency – except what Executive Director Vickie Chamberlain tells them.
The Memo further notes that Chamberlain only sends out board meeting packets a few days in advance. When Ms. Chamberlain came to the agency in 2002, the meeting packets were routinely sent one month in advance. Under Chamberlain’s leadership, that shrunk to weeks and now is at days. Whether by procrastination or design, a few days’ notice does not give members of a voluntary commission, most of whom are full-time educators, enough time to seriously consider material before the commission.
A typical commission meeting will include review of proposed changes in Oregon’s overly-complex licensing rules, along with dozens of discipline cases for which the commission has to decide whether and what kind of enforcement action to take. If it’s true that the executive director only sends the meeting packets days ahead of the meetings, this delay ensures the commission is forced to rely heavily on the executive director’s recommendations.
TSPC Director Appears to Churn Staff like Commission-based Brokers Churn Stocks
Again, presuming the details presented by a purported majority of TSPC staff are true, the agency posts a 63% turnover rate from 2002, when Chamberlain became executive director, to the present. That number is grossly high, by any measure.
We don’t have access to average turnover within Oregon agencies, nor have we adjusted for any changes due to the recession. However, for some comparison points, in 2011 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Government agencies and employers experienced the lowest level of employee turnover, at 1.4%. The construction industry posted a 7% turnover rate for employees which was the highest level of employee turnover. In 2006, the average turnover rate in the government sector nationwide 8.2%.
While high turnover rates are serious problems for any employer, public or private, longevity among staff would be especially vital at TSPC given that Oregon maintains a bizarrely complex teacher licensing system with an unusually high number of licensing classifications.
The TSPC memo included a listing of staff that were fired, laid off or quit from 2002-present. The memo acknowledges this is based on staff recollections and not confirmed by the Department of Administrative Services (DAS). (OregonPEN is contacting key personnel listed to verify details, and contacting DAS to see what we can confirm.)
Two of the key positions in an agency that licenses, in addition to the executive director, would be the deputy director and the director of licensing. Looking through the memo’s list of employee turnover, since Ms. Chamberlain took over as executive director in 2002, at least two deputy directors have resigned, one before 2005, and one in the 2009-2011 period after one year.
More concerning might be the turnover of licensing director – since the agency’s licensing backlog is among the worst in the country (staff say it’s the worst).
How many more licensing directors must come and go through that agency before someone figures out the problem may be the person who hires and manages them – the executive director?
Near the end of the memo, the staff beg anyone who reads the memo to come visit the agency and see for themselves what goes on. The memo reads like the sad cry of abused children pleading for the DHS to come see what happens behind closed doors.
TSPC’s Extreme Inefficiency and Waste
Details emerge in the memo that could be a Bureaucracy 101 lesson in "How to Gerrymander a State Budget." Many of these details are confirmed by this spring’s Ways & Means hearings in the lengthy go-rounds between the angry legislators and Ms. Chamberlain.
The memo tells of ordering a higher-level salaried person to cover the duties of a low-level position, because opening the low-level position would require recalling an employee who got in the cross-hairs of the executive director. This move leaves the higher level work undone, and uses public funds to overpay for completion of the lower-level work.
The memo also tells of a lower-level position the executive director classified as a management position, allegedly to “protect the position from review by the union.”
The staff memo lays out story after story of an executive director who practices management by whimsy – creating work-arounds to punish civil employees she can’t fire, and unfairly promoting those who go along with her machinations. If the claimed 63% turnover is accurate, or even half accurate, then finding ways to lay people off and work them out of class seems to be a passion of this executive director.
The memo details numerous decisions, that are easily verifiable, that make no financial sense or business sense.
If the agency were functioning, one might give a director some discretion and leeway – after all, at that level they are presumed not to need micromanaging. But with an agency that forces teachers to wait longer than most any other state to get their licenses, and consistently mismanages discipline actions, personnel and budget issues can and should be under scrutiny.
The details in this TSPC staff memo create an impression that is hard to rebut – that the executive director’s mismanagement may well have created the backlog that now exists.
Ms. Chamberlain has often attempted to lay blame for the licensing backlog on her licensing directors – but it appears she never keeps any of them for much longer than two years. TV Psychologist Dr. Phil might ask her, “How’s that excuse still workin’ for ya’?” The answer in Oregon, sadly, is that it’s been working for her for over a decade and it’s still working. A few legislators on Ways & Means who have been around long enough to see a pattern have started to catch on – one even called her out in this spring’s hearing, telling Chamberlain he’s heard her excuses before.
At the time of the TSPC staff memo, March 19th, 2015, the agency’s own website stated that it was currently processing license requests from 11/10/2014, which means the agency takes 19 weeks to issue a license.
The claims of inefficiency and waste, if true, are stomach churning in themselves. TSPC is fee-based, which means its costs and the directors’ salary are paid from the fees teachers pay for their license. Many would agree Oregon’s teachers are over-worked and underpaid – should we add to their insult by wasting their hard-earned money the way we appear to be doing?
TSPC Director Shows Disdain for Teachers
Of all the disturbing claims in this 15-page memo, most disheartening is the disrespectful and degrading treatment that Ms. Chamberlain is recorded to have dished out to educators.
The memo states that the TSPC Director repeatedly makes changes in crucial aspects of licensing rules and doesn’t tell teachers, or even the TSPC staff, about the changes.
The memo states that Ms. Chamberlain has told staff that educators who want to know about any changes in their licensing requirements “can get online and listen to the [commission] meeting results.” She expects the state’s 60,000 K-12 teachers to take their own personal time to listen to minutes of commission meetings? They are not entitled to receive a notice of changes in their ability to practice their profession?
The superintendent who testified before the House Education Committee in April confirmed that this lack of notice of license rule changes is accurate.
The TSPC staff memo further notes that the agency is behind on posting the audio minutes of commission meetings, even if a teacher wanted to try to listen. When the memo was written in March, the most recent audio available was from the prior July's commission meeting.
These claims are backed up by a school district superintendent and a school district human resources director who each told the House Education Committee in April that TSPC’s delays and constant mistakes in teacher licensing have affected their teachers’ livelihoods and ability to teach.
The list of staff turnover included with the TSPC Staff Memo is printed below.
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