Guest Column

Downsizing’s Not a Foreign Term in Our Schools

by Gary A. Burton


Corporate downsizing and America's public schools: Is this a marriage that's long overdue?

I think not, and I'd like to tell you why. Recently, I attended a lecture on a common phenomenon within many American industries today. A business executive offered a firsthand account of what downsizing has meant for one of New England's largest companies. In an hour, I learned all about modern-day corporate survival.

During the lecture, the practical applications of corporate takeovers, company rightsizing and employee streamlining were explained in layman's terms. By his own account, this manager was directed to eliminate 30 percent of the jobs in his company. Failure to reach that goal within five years would render the company non-competitive. Like Mr. Holland the music teacher and Willie Loman the salesman, my industrial counterpart eventually lost his job and is now a former corporate executive.

Self-Sufficient Customers

Yes, big businesses in America have seen the light. To compete internationally they are abandoning their wasteful ways of the past, embracing "radical" change and downsizing themselves into the next century. To survive the journey, companies are voluntarily restructuring to become more effective, efficient and competitive. Profitability is viability in the 21st century.

How is this to be accomplished? Some companies have chosen to become less labor-dependent by taking work away from employees and giving it to the customers. Examples are self-service gas stations and automated teller machines. If you want someone else to pump your gas, you'll pay for that privilege. At some banks, if you need assistance, you'll pay to talk to a teller. It now takes much longer to find a clerk in some stores than to randomly search the aisles for the item you want. Helping the consumer become more self-sufficient is not a corporate goal as companies practice cost containment.

With fewer co-workers, employees are expected to learn new skills and to work smarter. To keep their jobs, workers must know more, do more and rely on less direction from management.

Picture a row of telephone operators bent over their switchboards. Now picture a supervisor pacing back and forth behind them waiting for something to go wrong. With smarter workers who solve their own problems, it's goodbye supervisors. With advances in telecommunications, managers needn't be nearby, not in the same building nor in the same state.

Management Overload

I left the lecture hall in a quandary: Was I impressed or depressed? The message was simple: American industries are restructuring to stay competitive and maybe America's public schools should consider doing the same. Halfway home, I realized that public schools have been doing many of these "radical" things for years. Public education is big business, but schools, unlike most industries, can't downsize since they were never upsized.

With downsizing, many front-line supervisors are eliminated. In public schools, these people are called administrators, usually principals. Typically, one administrator is assigned to every 30 or 40 school employees. Personally, I can't envision another industry that already operates with so little supervision. Additionally, principals deal directly with hundreds of students and their parents on a regular basis.

At the same time, the myth of a bloated school bureaucracy has been dispelled repeatedly. Re-engineering consultants attempting to de-layer the public schools of too many administrators have acknowledged, reluctantly, the necessary work of superintendents and other central-office administrators.

As for making the customer work harder, that's been our practice for years. Our customers (students) always have been required to take an active role in learning. Acquiring an education is not a passive activity. We expect students to work diligently while at school and send additional work home with them most nights. Teachers don't give away an education. A child earns one with considerable hard work a day at a time. We even go so far as to expect the students' family members to actively support what we do in school. Parents, in particular, are encouraged to check homework, chaperone field trips, help with book reports, and periodically visit school to enable teachers to report on their child's progress.

Fiscal Diligence

Financially, public schools offer cost-conscious consumers a real bargain when compared to annual private school tuitions. We don't restrict who comes through the front door of our buildings, yet like all good companies, it's our policy to stand behind our products. Our district’s recent graduates already are proving themselves capable at the university level and in the workplace. We're proud to report fewer dropouts and higher graduation rates. On the other hand, the new car I purchased a year ago has been recalled twice already.

Corporate downsizing is all about remaining profitable, spending less and making more. School people understand this concept. We prepare an annual operational budget, which is presented to our shareholders (voters) for their approval. Once approved, we cannot legally exceed what we have been authorized to spend. In short, our bottom line always must balance. We cannot operate at a financial loss. For some businesses, that would certainly be a radical idea.

Finally, public schools are no longer a monopoly. We acknowledge competitors in private schools, charter schools, religious schools, choice and voucher programs and even home schooling. Still, student enrollments are up significantly in many places—percent since 1990 in our district. Our customer base is up and we are a true growth industry. Now what private corporation wouldn't be envious?

Gary Burton is superintendent of the Wayland Public Schools, P.O. Box 408, Wayland, Mass. 01778-0408. E-mail: burton@meol.mass.edu