Efficiency from Incompetence

Hatched amid public conflict between board and employees, plan to redesign large Arizona community college district aims to heal institutional wounds.
February 4, 2010

Months after it was chastised by an independent panel for displaying “a consistent lack of civility” and creating “a climate of fear and mistrust,” the governing board of the Maricopa County Community College District has asked its chancellor to review and possibly implement a sweeping series of recommendations to improve the “efficiency” of the Arizona system.

The plan to redesign the district, marketed under the moniker “21st Century Maricopa,” is the result of $1.4 million worth of Alvarez & Marsal consulting work requested by the governing board last summer. The request, however, was made before the college district’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, encouraged an independent panel to examine an anonymous complaint it received alleging that the Maricopa board had put the district’s accreditation at risk by severely micromanaging educators.

The board’s hiring of outside consultants to weed out redundancies in the district and find further ways to save money is viewed by many local observers as a slight against Maricopa's leadership.

“Normally, boards of directors seek to improve their operations through the people they have hired to run things,” read a scathing editorial by The Arizona Republic in December. “In this case, that would be Chancellor Rufus Glasper and his administration. Unfortunately, members of the community-college board distrust Glasper and his staff so profoundly that they are willing to spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars to effectively second-guess Glasper and undercut his staff. There is a lot wrong with a strategy like that, but let’s focus on the one that stands out like a sore thumb: It is astonishingly inefficient.”

District employees also questioned the move.

“I’ll never understand the rationale of a board, talking about being financially short millions of dollars, hiring an outside consultant,” said Deanna Pritchard, president of the district’s professional staff association. “The report didn’t give us anything we didn’t already know and there aren’t really things that weren’t talked about. Still, what it did do is bring these to the front and make it a responsibility to address them.”

Quelling speculation that the board might bypass the chancellor and pay the outside consultants more money to implement any suggested structural and staffing changes, the board voted last week to make Glasper the head of the district redesign. Glasper will convene working groups of district faculty, staff and administrators to consider the viability of each of the consultants’ recommendations for cutting spending and improving performance.

Officials from Alvarez & Marsal say that their suggestions – ranging from increasing class sizes in certain disciplines and boosting the proportion of adjuncts to charging students a steep technology fee and outsourcing campus landscaping – could save the district between $29 million and $48 million annually. Their report, however, does not address the cost of implementing their recommendations. For example, the report suggests that the district expand the usage of the corporate credit cards its employees use for minor purchases to cover larger group expenses. It notes the savings this could provide but does not address the potential costs of changing card usage, such as raising limits or fees for greater use. Alverez & Marsal officials did not respond to requests for comment about its work. Glasper’s review of the suggestions will try to add in the actual costs of the recommendations.

Any savings would be welcome for Maricopa, a district than only receives 8.5 percent of its operating budget from state appropriations and whose chancellor has talked openly about planning for the possibility of state funding drying up entirely.

Still, many Maricopa faculty members view the redesign process as essential to healing the wounds caused by the district's openly warring board members, some of whom still question the legitimacy of the accrediting panel that investigated them last year.

“There is still a chasm of trust between the board and all the employees of Maricopa, starting with the chancellor,” said Jim Simpson, president of the district’s faculty association and a member of the redesign project’s steering committee. “A large part of this process is to help rebuild trust between us and the board. Working with the chancellor, that’s our biggest goal as faculty.”

Faculty and other interest groups, however, are wary of some of the consultants’ recommendations, and hope to dissuade the chancellor from embracing them during the vetting process. For example, the consultants’ report uses a regression model to back up the claim that the district “can increase class sizes in certain courses to new thresholds without negatively impacting student course completion.”

“They didn’t give us any of the data as to how they determine that certain courses could take more students,” Simpson said of the consultants. “You need a way more comprehensive model to take care of all of the variables out there.… There is an optimal class size, I agree. But, this is something that you need long-term research to determine. This is something you should get a Lumina grant for. For [the consultants], this was just a sales tool.… They wanted to show, ‘Here’s something you can do really quickly and get results.’ ”

The consultants also argued in their report that the district could save $2.5 million annually “by increasing the proportion of instructional adjuncts by 10% without impacting successful student completion.” Currently, 73 percent of Maricopa courses are taught by adjunct instructors. Some faculty question this suggestion, warning of dire consequences.

“Increasing adjunct faculty, yeah, that would save a lot of money,” Simpson said. “But, we want to maximize student success, and [Community College Survey of Student Engagement] reports and all kinds of others show that the higher the ratio of full-time faculty to adjuncts, the better students perform.”

Though the consultants’ report does not mention layoffs of faculty or professional staff directly -- such a move would require a change in their contracts or other major policy changes -- it does openly suggest trimming the district’s maintenance staff. For instance, it notes that the district could save between $7.9 million and $14.9 million by outsourcing its custodial, landscaping and fleet maintenance services. In the case of custodians, it mentions that Maricopa custodians make nearly $3 per hour more than “regional industry averages.”

Though Fred Reill, president of the district’s association for maintenance and operations employees, did not respond to requests for comment, he did speak out against outsourcing at a Maricopa board meeting last fall.

“Some of our employees feel that [maintenance and operations] is a disposable group,” Reill wrote in a statement to the board. “When the budget is tight, the first areas to be outsourced are [maintenance and operations] groups. … The [maintenance and operations] department is Maricopa’s ‘first responders.’ They are often the ones asked for directions or other questions by incoming students or visitors. Can a contracted employee do this? Will a contracted employee take pride in the way the landscape or building looks? Are they trained in any way to meet the specific needs of each campus? Have they been trained to deal with air- and blood-borne pathogens? Being a groundskeeper or custodian is more than just knowing how to use a mower or a broom.”

Randolph Lumm, president of the Maricopa governing board, did not respond to a request for comment, and Glasper was not available for comment. A district spokesman with access to Glasper, however, reiterated the importance of the redesign project in moving the district forward.

“This reaffirms the chancellor’s role as chief executive officer,” said Tom Gariepy, a Maricopa spokesman. “It is the board’s expectation that he is in charge of the process, and the chancellor told them to hold him accountable for the results.… This process will be as transparent as we can make it.”


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