Friday, March 26, 2010


The following piece was published in yesterday's Emporia Gazette.  The reaction so far has been mixed, with the general public supportive and the local school district upset, claiming that I've played hard and loose with the truth. I expected.  Things like that happen when someone's feet are held to the fire  Well, I'm right and they're wrong.  It's as simple as that.

The op-ed follows:

When recently asked to justify the “need” for three assistant superintendents at USD 253, John Heim answered, “Their leadership has been an essential component to the district's academic accomplishments, sound financial condition, and ability to attract and retain high-quality teachers.”

The gobbledygook came at a time when the axe was being laid to a school district wrestling with a severe financial crisis. About a month ago the school board met to consider cuts to make up the huge deficit. Based on potential cuts explored by the Performance Based Budgeting committees almost everything was on the chopping block. The reductions proposed amounted to 42 FTE’s. Based solely on the numbers, the proposal was quite impressive. But when one digs into the guts of the report there is something glaringly absent. Potential cuts included “close K-4, 5th and 6th grade centers, increase class sizes at all levels, HS athletics, fine arts, school tutorial and enrichment program, library services, building technology, activity bus routes, safe and drug free schools program, and implement more aggressive energy management program.” There was nothing about reductions in executive or upper management positions.

It was a tale repeated in the recommendations of all 293 Kansas school districts. Statewide, the various PBB committees recommended 5100 FTE’s in potential cuts, ranging from reductions in reading programs, tutorial programs, maintenance, scholars’ bowl, forensics, all day kindergarten, elementary music, art, English, science, foreign languages, reductions in instructional days, etc. I went through the report several times to be sure that my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Each time the same thing glared right back at me. The strategy employed appears to be protecting the bureaucracy/aristocracy at all costs.

One could argue that some program cuts might be beneficial. But, is it reasonable to assume that the safest place to be in this tangled mess is in an executive, upper management, or staff position? Is it reasonable to assume the only ones in danger of having their professional heads lopped off are those closest to the students, who should be the paramount interest in this increasingly grisly equation?

How can this be? John Heim said it. He’s “essential,” and so is the rest of his management team.

At an earlier public meeting some constituents offered olive branches. One of the most notable was a recommendation for wage cuts to be implemented across the board, aimed at protecting the integrity of the current classroom structure. I suppose the proposal might work, but I suspect it would be frowned on by those in upper management who deem themselves “essential” to the education of our children.

In a subsequent meeting, Mr. Heim presented three or four alternatives, each outlining possible cuts. As with the PBB, management remained untouched. It was an interesting process to observe. Mr. Heim outlined the potential cuts, then sat back, smiling like the Cheshire cat. The board then went on, in turn, talking about eliminating a bus route here or a school there or an hour or two here or expressing joy that there may be the possibility of eliminating only half of the teaching positions outlined in the PBB report. I could see why Mr. Heim was smiling. He and his management team remained above the fray, safe from the dreaded axe. It was so sad that it was actually funny. The school board spent its time straining out gnats and swallowing camels; Mr. Heim’s smile broadened with each camel swallowed.

In defending his position, Mr. Heim cleverly drew comparisons to private industry, arguing that the school district is indeed running like a business. They have corporate structures. So does USD 253. What on earth could be wrong with that?

In his book “Barbarians to Bureaucrats – Corporate Life Cycle Strategies,” author Lawrence Miller described the life stages of corporate entities, from inception, with the prophet/barbarian who has an idea to explore or a customer to serve, to its demise, overseen by the bureaucrat/aristocrat who has a career and legacy to protect. In this final stage, the needs of the customer are supplanted by the needs of those in power. Mr. Miller also observed that the only way to break the vicious cycle is for customers and shareholders to revolt, demanding that the corporate silos be torn down and the needs of the customer once again met.

When good companies see the light, they inevitably return to the needs of the customer. This is what USD 253 needs. Unfortunately, with the help of a compliant school board and an aristocrat at the helm, we appear to be far from the desired target. Could it be that a shareholder/customer revolt is the only thing that can trigger meaningful change?

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