Ben Peck and Minneapolis Public Schools: Ten years and out, without a warning

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Change has been a constant this year for the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Information Technology department. In addition to bringing on Rich Valerga, its third Chief Information Officer in eighteen months, thirty-four of the department’s approximately sixty employees have been fired, laid off, excessed, or have resigned their positions and left the district.

Many former and current IT department employees said that the December 2013 firing of long-time IT manager Ben Peck has been a particularly painful loss. Peck, who graduated from Minneapolis South High School and Stanford University, shared his IT department story in a recent Q & A session.

Can you describe the work you did for MPS’ IT department?

I was hired as a building tech in August 2002, and was promoted to positions of higher responsibility within IT over many years. Twice, we rebuilt the district’s IT infrastructure, as we took it from a mainframe computer in the basement of 807 Broadway (former district headquarters) up to what we have now with almost all of the servers being consolidated "virtual" servers. Our department oversaw the building of a whole new data center at the Davis Center, the district’s new central office. Eventually, I was made a manager in the department because of my tech knowledge, but I was a reluctant manager. My main thing was the implementation of technology in the schools. I focused on helping and training IT techs, and promoting an efficient use of the technology we had.

When did the IT department take on a CIO?

MPS started its CIO experience in fall of 2010, after an outside company came in, at the request of district administrators Meredith Fox and Steve Liss , to analyze the IT department. The CELT group came in and did a report on IT. Their conclusion was that issues around data governance within MPS would be fixed by hiring a CIO.

MPS has had three CIOs in a very short period of time. Who was the first CIO?

Although an internal MPS candidate was interested in the job, David Mayor was hired from Rochester, New York. He came from a mostly private sector background, and it took a while for him to adjust to the Instructional Technology side of IT in MPS. He died six months into the job, unfortunately.

What happened next?

After Mayor died, six more months passed without another CIO, and in the meantime Robert Doty became the district’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Doty came from the failed Dunwoody Academy Charter School in north Minneapolis, and it seems Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is really impressed by him. After only a year as CFO, she made him COO, or Chief Operating Officer, although he had no experience in running operations departments like IT, transportation, food services, facilities, etc. During this time, Don Hall was hired as our CIO, but he left after six months. My guess is that he did not want to report to Doty, and was opposed to his promotion or the new organizational chart.

After Don Hall left, Rich Valerga became CIO?

Yes. I had been on the CIO interview panels that ultimately selected Mayor and Hall, and I knew Valerga had applied for the job each time it had come up, but he was never in the running. The third time around, after Hall left the district, Valerga was the third choice out of three candidates who had applied for CIO. It was left up to Doty and Superintendent Johnson to make the final choice, and they chose Valerga. Those who served on the hiring committee asked what happened to the other two candidates, and they never got a good answer. We heard that St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva had given Valerga, who mentors her son, a glowing recommendation, but we didn’t want him in MPS.

Why didn’t you want Valerga in MPS?

He had been the CIO in St. Paul for about eighteen months, and left abruptly for Memphis. Some from the district there said he had been asked to leave. Many good long-term employees left the St. Paul district during his tenure there. He had angered people there by not letting anyone buy equipment, for example, and by removing all of the media specialists in the schools. Many in the IT department in MPS were very nervous when we heard he had been hired as CIO. Those on the interview committee who checked his referrals said they were tepid at best, but heard great things about the other two people who had applied for the job, and we all really wanted to know how Valerga got picked. We didn’t feel he was the right candidate, as his background and reputation were an issue. Unfortunately, the HR department at MPS frowns upon asking candidates specific questions about their work history, requiring the same questions be put to all. Follow up questions are only allowed if the candidate mentions the subject first. I've never understood the logic of this rule.

What happened when Valerga came on board in August 2013?

Right away, he seemed convinced that the IT department was too big and too expensive. He did spend a lot of time talking to me and to other IT people, but did he listen to us? It doesn’t seem so. He asked us why the leadership structure was the way it was, with me and some of my colleagues, such as Krishna Pathak, functioning as directors, but also as leads for the technologies as well. By this I mean we always worked directly with many of the technologies we managed and transferred knowledge to our employees at the district and in the schools. I thought it was important to empower all of our employees with knowledge about our applications and technology, so they could better support the students and staff.

What did Valerga think of this?

He thought that if someone was a Director, or Manager, then that was purely his or her job. It is a hierarchical approach, but ultimately requires more employees. It is true that before, when we just had an Executive Director, we may have had too much micromanaging and tried to do too much as a department.

Were there other immediate changes?

Under our previous director, Coleen Kosloski, we were able to operate on a four and a half year cycle of updating our district computers and tech equipment within MPS. This happened because Kosloski had been able to work with the School Board to establish a budget and get facilities bonding money into IT to support a cycle of replacement. When Valerga came on board, he stopped all of this, and almost all other projects. IT was then only allowed to spend money to only allow existing systems to operate. By now, I would say the department is probably a year behind.

Why do you think this change occurred?

It is my sense that Valerga is reluctant to fill the whole role of IT in a school district. He seemed at a loss of what to do with the important instructional technology and technology curriculum component of our department since it doesn't fit squarely with the paradigms of ITIL and other best practices of IT management. Also, by cutting the budget and operations of the department significantly, he likely satisfied his supervisor, COO Robert Doty, whose main concern is still money. Unfortunately neither understands the huge amount of institutional knowledge and value of the employees that have left, which will require much more expensive out-sourcing to replace.

You were fired by Valerga in December 2013. What happened?

I still do not have a good answer for why I was fired. It came as a big surprise. Up until then, I had been included in changes and had just undergone an expensive week of training through an Arizona-based company that Valerga brought to MPS in November 2013. The training, which was done for all IT leadership staff except for Valerga, probably cost the district $12,000. The following week, I was leading an IT meeting when Valerga called me out. He fired me and had me escorted out of the building. He told other IT staff not to have any contact with me. I found out later that, just before I was fired, he told security personnel to be on guard because I was known to be verbally abusive and to destroy documents. People who heard this laughed because I am actually just the opposite. If anything, IT staff thought I should have been a harder manager. Now, because of all the firings and lay offs in IT, there are probably only two people of the twelve still there who went through that IT training back in November.

Looking back, were there any warning signs?

I had been more vocal than most about Valerga’s requests and mandates. For example, he took several IT employees, including me, to a November IT conference in Seattle. Normally travel for district business is severely restricted. Before we went, he instructed us not to tell anyone in IT that we were going, and once there, he flew back to Minneapolis two days early, providing no explanation. He didn't appoint anyone to be in charge while we were gone, and no one knew "officially" where anyone was. I did, though, send an email telling people where we were.

Also, Valerga began to make odd demands in our management meetings that didn't make a lot of sense.  For example, he demanded that any email from him be answered in at most 10 minutes, but computers and cell phones were not allowed in his management meetings, and yet he would rarely reply to emails from us. He wanted all cell phones taken from IT staff that didn't need them, but neglected to define what he meant or provide justification. My staff that had cell phones, needed them. He also started to leave on conference trips a lot, while cutting the department’s budget and leaving many IT projects awaiting funding or approval.

Ultimately, I think Valerga is threatened by competent people, due to his own lack of real IT experience. He has promoted and hired people who won’t question his authority and know less than him. I also underestimated the opportunistic nature of a few newly hired employees, who used the department's situation as a means to a quick promotion, bad-mouthing both its employees and the way in which the department operated.

Did you consider legal action against the district for the way you were fired?

I did. I contacted two lawyers but, unfortunately, the reorganization done by former CIO Don Hall had made my director position an at-will, managerial one, meaning it could be eliminated at any time. I did get some severance pay, however, although I am unsure they would have paid it without continued prompting.

Valerga did repost my position five months later, but our bargaining group, MACA, let him know that attempting to fill a position that had been eliminated was not allowed. He did it anyway, it seems.

What’s one thing that really bothers you about losing your job?

What is tragic to me is that MPS was in the process of building a second data center at Washburn High School, in case the district’s main data center had a problem. There was a one million dollar renovation done at Washburn to accommodate this, and redundant IT equipment was purchased to store at this secondary site. We needed to acquire electronic storage space there for backing up data, and I got competitive bids to do this. However, Valerga wouldn’t move forward on the project and eventually stopped responding to emails about it. If I would have had three more months in my job, I could have finished the project. Now, back up data storage for MPS will probably have to be outsourced, if it happens at all.

I am also worried about the upcoming renovation of Southwest High School. With so many experienced, knowledgeable IT staff gone, I worry there is no one to work with the facilities department in the technology aspects of the renovation so that its infrastructure is functional in the fall.

 

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Sarah Lahm

Sarah Lahm (sarah dot lahm at gmail dot com) is a writer, blogger, and former English Instructor, and has children in the Minneapolis Public Schools.