Waltham’s school superintendent is pledging to improve the city’s schools in the wake of a scathing state review that found the district to be poorly managed, with a high turnover rate in top administrative positions, relatively low funding for technology and at-risk groups, and student drop-out and absentee rates higher than the state’s average.
The report, based on a four-day site visit in February by Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials, comes after the district received a “level three’’ designation from the agency that places Waltham in the bottom 20 percent statewide.
Superintendent Susan Nicholson, who is beginning her second year with the district, said the state report aligns closely with a plan she presented to the School Committee in June. However, she defended the district’s achievements, and criticized the state for not highlighting them in the report.
“It’s a very valuable document, but I do believe — and I’m not alone in this belief — that it was heavily negative,” Nicholson said. “We do have work to do in the district, but there are also excellent instructional practices going on in the district, and those were not as prominently identified in the report as they could have been.”
The report found the school district has seen high turnover rates in several offices: There have been four superintendents in five years, five special education directors in the past eight years, and eight of the nine school principals in the district are new as of 2009.
Such turnover of school leaders has led to “uncertainty about roles and responsibilities, insufficient communication, and unclear priorities, with each school operating independently rather than as part of a system,” according to the report.
Faculty and staff also told the visiting state officials that each new principal offered initiatives to put their schools on the right track, but that there were more than 80 initiatives in effect across the district.
“We have eight schools that may not necessarily talk to each other,” said Lisa Limonciello , a Waltham School Committee member. “People were going in different directions. There were no clear lines of direction and no common themes in the district.”
Nicholson said the district has already begun cutting several initiatives, and refocused others.
The state report also found that the high job turnover rate could have been exacerbated by the lack of a human resources director, a position that has gone unfilled for three years.
“In a private sector company, there would be an exit interview to encapsulate why people are leaving — to find the reason, and have that data available,” Limonciello said.
The report also found that the average Waltham teacher was absent for 15 days out of the school year, higher than the state average, and said it most likely was because the district does not cap days instructors can take off for professional development.
The report also criticized the district’s student attendance and graduation rates. Nearly a quarter of Waltham High students were deemed chronically absent, and only about half of the school’s English language learners graduate, the report found.
The district’s overall graduation rate was 78.4 percent in 2011, 5 percentage points lower than the state average, according to the report.
The report criticized how the school allocated its money: Although per-pupil expenditures in Waltham were $19,741 — one-third higher than the state average — in 2011, the school district “does not appear to provide the effective instruction and extra support for at-risk students which could be available in such an asset-rich district.”
State officials also pointed out that although Waltham has replaced or renovated all but one of its school buildings in the past decade, maintenance costs outpaced state averages by 52 percent.
“Insufficient usable technology was mentioned repeatedly by interviewees,” the report states, noting that most of the system’s 2,700 computers were four to six years old, and could not support basic functions such as video streaming.
Nicholson said the district has more than $400,000 earmarked for technology for this academic year in a separate capital improvement budget.
“This is hindsight now, but they never asked us for that information, nor did we think to give it to them,” Nicholson said. “They were looking at the school budget. But the cost of technology is quite expensive, so we could never keep up with that out of the district’s operating budget.”
She also said the school system has made steps to improve graduation rates and education for ELL students. Teachers are beginning to receive professional development specifically for identifying at-risk students, and the district is in planning stages to install a bilingual advisory council to get non-English- speaking parents more involved.
“It’s top down and bottom up, which is the best way to achieve goals,” Nicholson said.
Mayor Jeannette McCarthy , who also serves as the School Committee’s chairwoman, said that although she appreciates the state’s review, she hopes the report will not taint the city’s reputation.
She said that many people rave about the district’s special education program, and noted that Waltham’s schools are lauded for its small classroom sizes due to a low teacher-to-student ratio.
“We had management issues that needed to be addressed, and they were,” McCarthy said. “We are a city, not a town — we’re not a bedroom community, and as such, we have greater needs. But I think overall we’re moving in the right direction.”
School Committee member Edmund Tarallo also said he thought the district’s improvements were overlooked.
“I feel like the report comes off rather negative at the beginning, but getting through it and looking at what it is, we’re doing some things rather well, and that’s sometimes overlooked,” Tarallo said, noting that Waltham High was upgraded this year from a level three school to level one, the highest mark an institution can receive.
And Nicholson — who is about halfway through a three-year contract — said she “most certainly” sees herself serving as the district’s top administrator for years to come.
“I’m very proud to be superintendent in Waltham,” she said. “We have significant resources, but a lot of things just were not connecting. We have seen that, but we are all working tirelessly to connect everything in the district now.”