Schools turn to business for 'chief educational officers'
In a rapid-fire delivery, Philip Geiger talks about spreadsheets and profit margins, bottom lines and zero-based budgets. He speaks of “redeploying people in strategic positions.” But 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 superintendent of schools in Piscataway Township, N.J.
One of only a handful of public-school administrators plucked from the private sector, 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,” Geiger says.
During his short tenure, Geiger has already put his nontraditional methods into practice in the Piscataway schools. Months after taking the helm, he farmed out noninstructional 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; one classroom is overflowing with 59 new Macintosh computers, while in another, students access information via an 800-telephone number that taps into libraries across the country. “People say, ‘I’d love to do what you do, but I don’t have the money,’” 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, director of precollege programs at the Council for Aid to Education. And with public schools strapped for cash, business leaders, like Geiger, are increasingly being eyed for superintendencies and principalships in the expectation that they will institute reforms many educators consider overdue. In Baltimore, a Minnesota-based company has even been hired to run nine public schools. (See “Bullish On Schools,” page 30.)
“There is a great deal of potential for creative business thinking in education,” says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, “and there is no reason why organizational skills, ensuring effective delivery of services, can’t be transferred to different sectors.” Just like businesses, she says, schools must provide “services” to their “customers”—students, parents, and the public.
With fewer than a dozen of these new-era school leaders in place, many educators are not yet ready to call it a trend. But, as school systems become 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. More than 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, interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “There is an unprecedented number of new freshman superintendents,” he points out.
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-billiondollar budgets. As a result, business acumen has become an increasingly important part of the administrator’s job qualifications.
To find individuals with the necessary skills, some school districts are hiring headhunters to identify business executives looking for career changes. “We looked for a team leader,” says Lynne Rauch, superintendent of Lincoln Unified School District in Stockton, Calif., which tapped a public relations executive to become “chief educational officer” of Lincoln High School.
Ann Quinn, a former realestate company manager and a Stanford University alumna, started the job in February after being courted by headhunters. 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 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 CEO, Quinn plans to improve the school’s marketing and public relations, 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.
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 thirdlargest school district, Mayor Richard Daley would like to bring in someone with a management background to replace former General Superintendent of Schools Ted Kimbrough, according to a spokesman for the Chicago schools.
Some school systems are hiring vice presidents or businessoperations 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 spokeswoman for the school district.
The additional expertise of a business manager to take over the fiscal responsibilities makes sense to many leaders in the field. “Some doctor who is practicing medicine wouldn’t want to be the hospital administrator,” says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Schools ought to separate jobs out.”
While the business-oriented school leader is becoming increasingly accepted, there are those who warn that such administrators can be insensitive to education issues and leave school workers uncertain of the leader’s agenda. Moreover, some educators fear that a bottom-line approach to schools is dangerous.
“It’s not just about dollars and cents,” says Ronald Areglado, 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, he says, they may be unable to attend to the complex educational, psychological, and social needs of students. And, he notes, individuals with business backgrounds often come in with notions that anyone can do an educator’s job.
Kanter of Harvard objects to this stereotype of business leaders. But, she notes, “people have to be accountable for the use of resources. Education has lagged in those disciplines.”
In some instances, reorganization efforts such as 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 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 Shanker of the AFT. “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 “BAU,” with a red line drawn through them. “It’s no more ‘business as usual,’ “ Geiger explains. “Schools are going to have to function in a business community because this is not a trend; it’s the wave of the future.”
Vol. 04, Issue 07, Pages 18-19