Wanted: Executive With Management Skills To Run Complex Enterprise

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In a rapid-fire delivery, Philip E. Geiger talks about spreadsheets and profit margins, bottom lines and zero-based budgets. He speaks of "redeploying people in strategic positions.''

But Mr. Geiger, a former real-estate-company president with a master's degree in business from the University of Pennsylvania, is no longer in the corporate suites where he once toiled. For the past year, he has been the superintendent of schools of Piscataway Township, N.J.

One of only a handful of public school administrators plucked from the private sector, Mr. Geiger represents what many consider a new kind of school leader: a no-nonsense business executive whose eyes are fixed more on finance than test scores.

"People say schools are not a business, and we have to be sure everyone is protected, but sometimes you can't function effectively unless you get rid of personnel expenses,'' says Mr. Geiger.

During his short tenure, Mr. Geiger has already put his nontraditional methods into practice in the Piscataway schools.

Months after taking the helm, he farmed out non-instructional services--the bus fleet, the cafeteria, and child-care services--to outside companies, a move he says will save the school system $5 million over three years.

He has significantly reduced the teaching staff, and used the money saved to reinvest in new technologies and services for students.

Fifty-nine new Macintosh computers overflow in one school room, while in another class, students electronically access information via an 800 number that connects libraries across the country.

"People say, 'I'd love to do what you do, but I don't have the money,' '' Mr. Geiger says. "I say, 'You always have the money.' ''

Businesses have long been aiding schools on a peripheral level, lending expertise, providing management-consultant services, and donating supplies.

But "businesses realize that schools are not going to be changed by just giving computers,'' says Diana Rigden, the director of precollege programs at the Council for Aid to Education.

And with public schools strapped for cash, business leaders, like Mr. Geiger, with nontraditional backgrounds are increasingly being eyed for superintendencies and principalships in the expectation that they will institute reforms many educators consider overdue.

"There is a great deal of potential for creative business thinking in education, and there is no reason why organizational skills, insuring effective delivery of services, can't be transferred to different sectors,'' says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor of business administration at Harvard University.

Just like businesses, she says, schools must provide "services'' to their "customers''--students, parents, and the public.

Tougher Job, Fewer Applicants

With fewer than a dozen of these new-era school leaders in place, educators stop short of calling it a trend. But as school systems are becoming more complex and the pool of qualified applicants diminishes, many school boards are actively courting business leaders to solve both their fiscal and instructional dilemmas, educators say.

Over 95 percent of the nation's urban school superintendents are in their first contract, leaving fewer qualified applicants free to move on to other positions in the school hierarchy, according to Michael Casserly, the interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

"There is an unprecedented number of new freshman superintendents,'' he points out.

And as the largest employer in some regions, schools have become big enterprises. Urban school operations, in particular, employ tens of thousands of people and wrestle with multi-billion-dollar budgets.

As a result, business acumen has become an increasingly important part of the administrator's job qualifications.

"There aren't many others [besides company executives] that run operations that are comparable in size, so it is not an illogical place to look,'' says Mr. Casserly.

To find such individuals, some school districts are hiring head-hunters to identify business executives looking for a career change.

"We looked for a team leader,'' says Lynne Rauch, the superintendent of the Lincoln Unified School District in Stockton, Calif., which tapped a public-relations executive to become "chief educational officer'' of Lincoln High School there.

Ann Quinn, a former real-estate-company manager and a Stanford University alumna, started the job last week after being courted by head-hunters. As far as she knows, she is the only noncredentialed principal in the country.

"I am practical, pragmatic, and I am not afraid of change,'' says Ms. Quinn, who adds that she favors the team-leader approach over the old-fashioned hierarchical one.

Because of her lack of education credentials, the school elevated five assistant principals to "principal'' positions to run the instructional programs, teacher evaluation, and curriculum development.

As ã.å.ï., Ms. Quinn plans to improve the marketing and public relations for the school, as well as "be a coach'' for the school's 110 teachers and 2,400 students.

"I want to do things in the most effective and efficient way possible,'' she says.

Loosening the Credentials

In part, the move to encourage business leaders to run schools has been eased by efforts to permit alternative routes for the certification of school administrators.

The Wisconsin and the Illinois legislatures, for example, have recently passed laws loosening the requirements for hiring superintendents.

Large districts, too, are looking at nontraditional candidates. In Chicago, the nation's third-largest school district, Mayor Richard M. Daley would like to bring in someone with a management background to replace former General Superintendent of Schools Ted D. Kimbrough, according to a spokesman for the Chicago schools.

Some school systems are hiring vice presidents or business-operations managers to run the finances, leaving the superintendents to their educational duties.

Last summer, for example, the Cincinnati school district hired a Texas oil executive as its first vice president, to "reduce the paper flow, set up task forces to collect statistics, and update the information system,'' says Monica Curtis, a spokewoman for the school district.

The additional expertise of a business manager to take over the fiscal responsibilities makes sense to leaders in the field.

"Some doctor who is practicing medicine wouldn't want to be the hospital administrator,'' says Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. "Schools ought to separate jobs out.''

'Arrogance' of the Executive

But while the business-oriented school leader is becoming increasingly accepted, some warn that such administrators can be insensitive about education issues and leave school workers uncertain of the leader's agenda. Some educators, moreover, fear that a bottom-line approach to schools is dangerous.

"It's not just about dollars and cents,'' says Ronald Areglado, the assistant executive director of programs for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "You have to know about child growth and development, because those are the clients of the system.''

While corporate administrators may be equipped to save a school from bankruptcy, Mr. Areglado says, they may be unable to attend to the complex educational, psychological, and social needs of students.

Individuals with business backgrounds also often come in with notions that anyone can do an educator's job, he adds.

"There's an arrogance about this,'' echoes Gary Marx, an associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Managing the learning process is different from making light bulbs. ... In business, if you don't like the raw materials you can send it back. We can't do that in education.''

But Ms. Kanter of Harvard objects to this stereotype of business.

"Businesses are not always cold calculation of numbers,'' she says, adding: "People have to be accountable for the use of resources. Education has lagged in those disciplines.''

In some instances, reorganization efforts like Mr. Geiger's have sparked criticisms from union officials, who argue that contracting with private companies to take over support services can be exploitative of new, nonunion workers.

But even so, some union leaders seem to be warming to the idea, arguing that competing for services that exist is preferable to massive layoffs as a result of poor money management.

"We are doing so poorly [in education] that I think it is worth trying,'' says Mr. Shanker. "Unlike a voucher system that would result in a permanent close-down [of schools], this is reversible. We should try it.''

In Piscataway, at least, the prevailing attitude is best expressed by signs that line the hallways at most of the town's schools. These signs depict the letters "B.A.U.,'' with a red line drawn through them.

"It's no more 'business as usual,' '' Mr. Geiger explains.

"Schools are going to have to function in a business community,'' he says, "because this is not a trend. It's the wave of the future.''

Vol. 12, Issue 20

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