Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Thing They Did Right

It was a tumultuous time, and a tumultuous place to work.

A management firm had been hired by our urban school district to undertake the change that, politically, the school district had been unable to do. The district’s infrastructure had been put in place at the height of student enrollment, back in the early 1960s – 130,000 school children.

The current enrollment was officially something like 40,000, and that may have been an exaggeration. Aging, if beautiful, buildings, a huge administrative staff, processes and procedures that might have worked a half century before – expenses were approaching the out-of-control point.

Almost as the management team arrived, the superintendent surprised everyone by announcing his retirement. The head of the management team was named acting superintendent, and looked at the financial books. The district was broke, and had been for some time. A serious educational and infrastructure problem had also become an urgent financial crisis.

For the next three months, budgets were shredded. Hundreds of people were laid off. Longstanding school programs like cafeteria food services were to be outsourced.

Imagine taking on the most conservative bureaucracy with rapid-fire change. It became ugly, exacerbated by the role the school district played in city politics. Protests at the district office and school board meetings became standard operating procedure.

I was hired as the communications director about four months into this process. My team and budget told the story of what was happening. From a staff of 13 and a budget of $1+ million, there was now a team of 1.5 (and I was the 1) and a budget of $20,000, which had already been spent.

I had experience working with management firms. For the previous two decades, these firms had helped restructure much of corporate America. Simultaneously vilified and lauded, they had played a major role in downsizings, restructurings, acquisitions, and divestitures. But I had never heard of a management firm taking over a school district.

This particular firm was better than all of the previous ones I had dealt with. It did some things wrong, and mostly political things. The grand poobahs of the school district and political establishment were often disregarded (many for good reasons). The president of the teachers union didn’t speak for all of the teachers in the union. City Hall was always ready with advice and specific directions.

But the firm did many things right. In fact, it did the important things right. The single most important thing it did right was to have courage.

It took courage to close and consolidate schools.

It took courage to outsource functions like food services.

It took courage to take on the teachers union.

It took courage to stand down the hundreds of protestors who showed up angry and screaming at every school board meeting.

It took courage to engage the community about unpopular decisions that had to be made, or how to determine the least of all bad choices.

It took courage to root out decades of favoritism, nepotism, and gentlemen’s agreements that benefitted the gentlemen (and often the ladies) who made the agreements and no one else.

And it took courage to state the obvious. The district was broke. It had been poorly managed for a long time. Children were not being well educated, except for a very few elite schools.

The management firm’s contract eventually and wasn’t renewed. It didn’t finish everything it set out to do. But it saved the district financially, and set the stage for the state government to come in a few years later to take over the district’s educational programs.

Of all the people I worked with in the school district, it was these outsiders, these “MBA types” with hard-charging personalities and iron-fisted determination to get the job done, who most had the interests of the children of the district at heart.

And it was because they had courage.

The High Calling is looking for stories on “what my employer gets right.” My story here is taken from a work experience I had a few years ago. To see more stories on the theme, please visit The High Calling.

Photograph by Ken Kistler via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

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