Executive Perspective

Merging Business and Education Know-How

by Daniel A. Domenech

For years I heard a familiar lament from the business sector of our school community: “Why don’t you run the schools like a business?”

After four years in corporate America, my response to that question is a bit more tempered. To be sure, there are distinct differences between a business and a school system, but, at the same time, many excellent management practices can apply to both.

We are better served by dividing the school district’s operations into the instructional and business components. The instructional side is the product side. Educating students is the mission. Supporting that mission are the many functions that closely relate to operating a business — human resources, finances, food services, transportation, security, and building maintenance. Here is where a superintendent can significantly improve on the delivery of services and cost efficiencies by running this side of the school operation like a business.

Executive Training
Like most of my colleagues, I started out as a teacher. I vaguely recall a graduate course called “School Finances.” It was hardly the equivalent of an MBA.

When I did become a superintendent, I felt very much up to the challenge as far as the instructional side of the equation was concerned. The business side was a different story.

To overcome weaknesses in my skill set, I immersed myself in the budget process with the help of my business official. I forced my administrators to present and defend their budget to me down to the minutest detail. It was a painful process, but one that served me extremely well.

Similarly, I approached some of our biggest vendors, companies like IBM, Xerox and AT&T, and asked whether I could be included in executive training sessions they held. The companies graciously granted my wish, and the business training of Dan Domenech, albeit in a patchwork mode, progressed quite well.

Today we are witnessing a rise in the number of nontraditional superintendents. Many large urban school systems are being led by individuals new to the business of education: Joel Klein in New York City, Paul Vallas in New Orleans, Arne Duncan in Chicago and David Brewer in Los Angeles, to name a few. We can speculate this is happening because those school boards and mayors believe the individuals they are hiring possess the leadership qualities and the skill set to successfully run huge operations. We also can speculate that those individuals have done their homework to learn the instructional side of the operation.

The Broad Foundation has committed millions of dollars to prepare leaders to assume the role of superintendent in urban school systems. The Broad Superintendents Academy was created in 2002 to transform urban school districts into effective public enterprises.

New Skill Set
Every cohort in the Broad program has allocated space for nontraditional superintendents. While I was superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., three of my assistants went through the Broad program. One of them was Tom Brady, a retired army colonel. I had an opening for an assistant in charge of facilities and Tom applied for the job.

He certainly had all the business skills to handle that side of the district’s operation, but he also had impressive leadership abilities and was an articulate spokesman for our schools. I hired him and soon thereafter made him our district’s chief operating officer. After I left Fairfax, Tom moved on to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, where he served as interim superintendent after Vallas’ departure. He now is the superintendent in Providence, R.I.

Through his own efforts and the Broad program, Tom learned as much as he could about the instructional side of education to supplement the leadership and managerial skills he had acquired in the Army.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the complexity of the job of being superintendent requires a skill set that is very different from the requirements of 10 years ago. Being an instructional leader in the traditional sense is no longer sufficient. The modern superintendent also needs to have strong business and managerial skills.

In recognition of this, several universities now offer programs with the traditional offerings from the school of education, but have included courses in the business school as well. The Wallace Foundation awarded two $5 million grants to Harvard and to the University of Virginia to provide executive training to teams of educators drawing on perspectives of education, business and public policy.

AASA also recognizes that superintendents and school business officials would benefit from timely news on financial/business news relevant to K-12 education. To this end, the association is launching a new-thrice weekly electronic publication called AASASchool Business SmartBrief on Jan. 12.

At AASA’s National Conference on Education, participants can attend several sessions focused on business issues, including “Creative Financial Alternatives for 21st Century Schools,” “Building Leadership Networks to Succeed in a Changing World” and “Data Steering — Establishing Processes for Centralized Data Management.”

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org

Dan_Domenech.jpgDaniel A. Domenech