Needed: Business managers for public schools
By Daniel E. White
With all the talk about how many hours educators actually work in the service of their students on a daily basis, one of the most overlooked yet least understood issues is how school administrators spend their day. With growing pressure to continually improve financial accountability, school principals are spending an alarming amount of time on administrative paperwork, rather than strategies to improve the quality of education in the classroom.
This is a major issue for more than 230 principals of our state's public schools. Under provisions of Act 51 from 2004, they are now expected to be more autonomous in the leadership of their respective schools.
Amidst increasing mounds of paperwork, their challenge is to find time to still be an instructional leader, manage professional faculty and staff efficiently, spend millions of dollars under full public and governmental scrutiny, and build a unique and exciting program using existing resources. And, they do all this in an eight-hour day for a salary and benefits that are modest compared with CEOs of businesses of comparable financial size.
We who lead Hawai'i's independent schools applaud the dedication and skill evident among the ranks of our colleagues in school leadership and offer a suggestion for how they can best manage their fiscal responsibility: Hire a good business manager. The reasons for such a move are compelling.
Few of us in leadership positions in schools — public or private — have education or training in financial affairs. Most of us have been teachers and, as a species, teachers are notoriously inattentive to financial matters, except to realize that we never seem to have enough money to do all we intend for our students.
In independent schools, the position of business manager or director of finance and operations is almost a given.
The logic is simple. In a tuition-charging institution, financial resources can be scarce, since few schools charge the full cost of education. So, dedicating one person to the effective management of those resources, as well as the generation of additional revenue through various auxiliary services like summer school and rentals, provides the best hope for optimizing the use of available funds.
An effective business manager enables those who head independent schools to focus on instructional leadership and institutional advancement. Business managers keep heads and boards of trustees apprised of opportunities, trends, warning signs and pending issues. Administrators hire teachers with particular expertise to increase the teaching staff's effectiveness and efficiency. Hiring a dedicated professional to manage the budget is the same principle.
Providing principals with good financial management tools — reports, effective budgets, income and expense reports — gives these school CEOs the same help as is available to their counterparts in the for-profit world. Principals will have more time to focus on instruction, the area of their responsibility most subject to public criticism. And, the business managers would generate data to help increase the transparency of how public schools operate — a matter of some mystery in the past.
The Hawai'i Business Roundtable issued a proposal recommending that complexes of public schools (two or three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school) should have a business manager they would share. The business manager would participate as a key player in the regular meetings of the complex principals, offering a valuable perspective in their discussions. This is a step in the right direction.
That would empower principals with more autonomy, which is essential if we are to truly succeed at "re-inventing public education" as envisioned by Act 51. Without such autonomy, we unfairly hold school principals responsible for imparting quality education to our children. And we do so without giving them the authority or even the right tools to do the job.
To ensure continuous improvement in Hawai'i's educational system and our ability to recruit talented, committed principals to lead the way, we should adopt this proposal to add business managers to our public school systems.
Daniel E. White is headmaster of Island Pacific Academy in Kapolei. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.