Facilitating Change
By Beverly Seinberg, Copywriter

You’ve gone as far as you can in your current position, and an opportunity comes along in another school district. It’s an ideal position, where you will have more responsibility, more room to grow and, likely, more money.

There’s a catch, though: if the new district is under the jurisdiction of a different civil service agency, you have to take another civil service exam. The one you passed for your current job doesn’t count. Neither does the experience you gained in that position.

That’s the situation New York’s school facilities directors found themselves in for decades. Moving to a new school district meant taking a new civil service exam. With no reciprocity between districts, passing the facilities director exam in one district didn’t qualify a person for the same position in another.

This was a lose-lose situation – for school districts, which had no statewide pool of qualified applicants to recruit from, and for the facilities director profession, which had no way to deliver that high-quality applicant pool.

That’s why, several years ago, leaders of the New York State School Facilities Association (NYSSFA), then known as the New York State Association for Superintendents of School Buildings and Grounds (SBGA), decided it was time for a change.

“The strategy was to create one state (Civil Service) exam that was more aligned with the real duties and responsibilities of school facilities directors,” recalls Joe Van De Loo, the Association’s executive director. This would not only establish reciprocity between school districts looking to hire facilities directors, it would also “standardize (the job requirements) and raise the bar for people entering the field.”

“We were told, ‘It would take an act of God to do that,’” says Fred Koelbel, who chairs NYSSFA’s Legislative Committee. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) liked the idea but was concerned about whether it would require districts to have a director of facilities. It also faced opposition from some local school districts. From their perspective, nothing was broken, so why fix it?

The Association, of course, knew the system was very broken, and they set out to amend the law.

After a few unsuccessful attempts, a bill to codify the position of School Facilities Director passed the New York State Legislature in 2008. That bill was vetoed by then-Governor David Paterson on the basis of technical concerns raised by the New York State Department of Civil Service (DCS).

A new version of the bill went before the Legislature in 2011, and the push was on, recalls James Carr, who served as the Association’s lobbyist.

“Beyond our annual advocacy day – which had grown larger and stronger year over year – in 2011 we asked NYSSFA members to make calls, write letters, send emails in support of the bill on a number of occasions.” Also, the Association’s leadership stayed involved “in every step of the process,” especially Koelbel, the Legislative Committee chair. “We were in contact with Fred nearly every day,” Carr says. The Association kept Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in the loop as well, “answering questions, addressing concerns and providing real-life examples of the need “for the legislation,” he adds.

Carr also gives credit to NYSSFA’s fellow organizations representing the Empire State’s public school districts – the New York State School Boards Association, the School Administrators Association of New York State and the Association of School Business Officials – for their support.

The effort paid off. The revised bill passed the Legislature and was signed into law by Governor Cuomo on August 17, 2011.

Passage of the law was the “building permit.” Now it was time to construct the framework for the statewide examination program. That job fell to the New York State Department of Civil Service.

Elaine Walter, NYSSFA’s Civil Service liaison, recalls that officials there were taken by surprise, as they hadn’t expected the law to pass. “They were minimally staffed at the time and were not immediately able to take on the expanded role now required,” she says.

That role involved reviewing hundreds of questionnaires sent in by hundreds of school facilities directors – operating under 100 different job titles – and distilling that information into a set of job descriptions and minimum qualifications for Director of Facilities I, II and III (the three positions corresponding to positions with different duties). Then, the state had to “get consensus from the 90-plus local civil service agencies to adopt the new titles and put them into place in each school district,” Walter says. This was also a challenging process, as “many of the local civil service agencies were unaware of the law and some were not supportive.” There were also concerns about how the statewide eligible list would be canvassed by multiple school districts, and how those already holding the position would be affected.

The Association sprang into action to face those challenges. Its leaders held a number of meetings with state and local civil service officials to clarify expectations and seek mutually helpful procedures. Webinars and other training programs explained the new law to Association members and addressed their questions. “Communication among the various parties was key to clarifying what concerns existed and what suggestions could be pursued to simplify the process for all parties as much as possible,” Walter says.

Three years after the law was passed, the first exam was administered. That’s an unusually long lapse, Walter says, but inevitable given the work that was required – classifying the duties and requirements of each Director of Facilities position, creating the exams for each level, and getting an amendment to clarify the promotion process through the legislature. “That basically added a full-year delay to the process but was the only way to assure that incumbents retained their promotion rights, a definite priority of the Association,” Walter says.

The Association and its partners are pleased with the outcome and ready to face whatever challenges lie ahead with the Director of Facilities Law. “I think we’ve got a process that’s working,” Koelbel says. “We got through the first course, and as long as we got everybody landing on their feet …we did a good job.”

Walter echoes that sentiment. “The process seems to have worked quite well,” she says. “Incumbents now have new standardized titles throughout the state, opportunities to transfer among various jurisdictions are enhanced, and qualified candidates are on the list for future vacancies.”

“This was a great effort to be part of, and a true example of an effective advocacy campaign for a membership organization,” Carr adds. “We had every element needed to ultimately succeed – knowledge, tenacity and a positive message always. We can’t overstate how important our members throughout the state were to this campaign. It took several years to get to the outcome we had hoped for, but we never lost sight of that goal.”