Guest Column

Downsizing Our Schools Corporate Style?

by Gary Burton

Corporate downsizing and America’s public schools. Is this a marriage that’s long overdue? I’m not so sure.

I attended a lecture recently on what’s happening inside many American industries. A corporate executive provided insight on what downsizing has meant for one of our nation’s largest companies. This manager, by his own account, had been asked to help eliminate 30 percent of the jobs within his company. He predicted that failure to reach this goal within five years will render the company non-competitive.

It appears that corporate America has seen the light (again) and is abandoning the wasteful ways of the past. To ensure a place in the 21st century, companies, both large and small, are voluntarily re-inventing themselves to be more effective, efficient and competitive. In less than an hour, I learned about the human side of corporate survival. My industrial counterpart explained in lay terms the practical value of corporate outsourcing, company rightsizing and employee streamlining.

Customer services and employee practices that are identified as unnecessary or too costly are abandoned as America’s businesses frantically search for new and better efficiencies. Two such examples are self-service gas stations and automatic teller machines. Work that was once performed by employees now is handled by the customers. Gas stations and banks alike are practicing cost containment in an attempt to remain profitable.

With 30 percent of the employees leaving one particular company, the remaining workers are expected to learn new skills, work harder and ultimately work smarter. To keep their jobs, the remaining workers must know more, do more and require less supervision. In fact, new technologies and automated procedures may make the workers themselves unnecessary.

A Costly Responsibility
I left the lecture not knowing whether I was impressed or depressed. The message was simple: American industries must redesign themselves to stay competitive. America’s public schools should consider doing the same.

Public schools are, after all, not a monopoly, and school leaders know they have legitimate competitors in private schools, charter schools, electronic learning and even home schooling.

Educating everyone’s children is a costly undertaking. Over the past 100 years, public schooling has grown into an enormous enterprise. Can schools be made more efficient? I believe so, but it may not be as easy as some think.

Unlike most big companies, small neighborhood schools aren’t easily downsized as they were never really upsized. With downsizing, unnecessary services, products and/or staff are identified and eliminated.

Public schools are labor-intensive businesses—between 80 and 85 percent of their budgets are spent on teachers, assistants, custodians, bus drivers and administrators. In private business, downsizing usually starts with the elimination of mid-level managers. In public schools, these are administrators, usually principals and curriculum leaders. Typically, there is one administrator for every 20 or 30 school employees. That’s certainly not the standard in private industry or the military.

Lesson for Others
I have yet to hear of any district that has successfully controlled costs by hiring fewer teachers and allowing class sizes to increase. Shopping by mail may eliminate salespeople, but a classroom without a teacher is not a sound idea. It’s akin to an airplane without a pilot.

The idea that the customer should shoulder some of the work is not new to education either. It has been a standard school practice for years. Students always have been expected to take an active role in learning, are required to attend classes daily and are sent home most nights with additional work. In fact, most schools expect a student’s parents to check homework, chaperone field trips, help with special projects and periodically confer with the instructional staff to review a child’s progress. Children aren’t given an education. They are expected to earn it with help from their parents.

Corporate downsizing is mainly about cutting costs, eliminating waste and remaining profitable. School officials understand this concept well. Most of us are incredibly cost-conscious as annual budgets must be publicly reviewed and approved by (1) the superintendent, (2) the school board and (3) ultimately, the voters before the expenditure of any funds.

It is important to note, too, that once a budget is approved, school officials cannot legally exceed what they have been authorized to spend. Deficit spending is simply not permitted, and by year’s end there must be a balanced bottom line.

From what I read and hear, this might be an invaluable lesson that America’s businesses could learn from their local public schools.

A final thought: Should public schools be run like American businesses? That always sounds like good advice, but is it? What businesses are being held up as models of efficiency?

The list of Fortune 500 companies changes annually, and some of the real giants of industry have survived only after government bailouts, tax breaks, corporate mergers and hostile takeovers by competitors. To make matters worse, half of all new businesses fail within five years. Again, I think businesses should be studying the public schools and not vice versa.

Gary Burton is superintendent of Wayland Public Schools, P.O. Box 408, Wayland, MA 01778. E-mail: His column appeared previously in the New Hampshire School Administrators Association newsletter.