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California School Fiscal Services

Providing comprehensive business office and consulting services to K-12 traditional schools and charters

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What About Supporting the Support Systems? Author: Michael Chapko

Posted on June 30, 2014 at 9:50 AM

Over the last 25 years public education in America has faced increasing calls for reform in the manner which education is delivered to students. Elements such as teacher preparation, the use of classrooms, curriculum, parental participation, learning styles, and incorporation of new technologies among others are argued, discussed and promoted.


Yet for all the attention given to the calls for reform in public education, one element of the present system would appear to have escaped notice. Little attention is given to refining the operations in the support systems in public education. With few exceptions the areas of business services, human resource management, and facilities and maintenance services continue to operate much as they have for the past 50 years or more.


 Typically the rigid top-down organization structure found in support systems groups in public school districts resembles 1930’s corporate America, one which promotes divisions and departments functioning within their own silo. Fortunately, the top down model is becoming increasingly irrelevant and is slowly being replaced by the matrix type organization – one which performs across different segments taking the best from each and requires collaboration. The skills required to effectively navigate the matrix are different than those needed to succeed in the old, hierarchical organizational model. Leaders lacking these skills often find these roles frustrating or draining, as they must continually influence to be able to deliver through others, managing up and across, as well as down.


 All too often, those charged with leading these operations practice a form of self-abrogation, opting to “caretake” instead by leaving in place pre-existing practices and paradigms without ever assessing their value or appropriateness. Those aware of the need to assess the value of ongoing practices are often limited in their ability to do so by the overwhelming nature of day-to-day challenges.


 To effectively support the monumental changes occurring in public education it is no longer adequate or tolerable to blindly accept and do what was done in the past. In order to ensure effective public education is sustainable, its support systems must be run business-like. This includes engaging in regular assessment of organizational effectiveness.


 Perhaps the single most critical task today’s leaders in public education support systems have is ensuring effective staff are in place. Staff are the single most crucial asset any of us has. Without them we are no more than a rudderless ship at sea. We may possess incredible strategies and initiatives, but without the means to implement them we are rendered ineffective.


 In their role as guardians of the gate, leaders are responsible for ensuring all new hires possess the minimum required skill sets for a given position. The days of assigning a position simply on the basis of how long a candidate has been employed with a school district is a luxury none can afford. Unlike inherited staff, newly hired staff can be effectively evaluated for possessing the required skill sets.


 Use of hands-on testing is the best means for assessing a candidates skills sets. All research demonstrates this to be the single most valid and correlated means of predicting a candidate’s future success in a position. To be sure, CSEA is not a fan of hands-on testing. But by including staff in the creation of the test and assessment of candidate skills during the test itself, objections raised by CSEA fade away.

 A secondary benefit of implementing hands-on testing is it aids in creating a culture based upon merit instead of longevity.


Anyone who has occupied a leadership position in public education knows well the accuracy of the “80-20 rule”, in which 80% of the time spent on personnel matters is concentrated on the 20% of staff who consistently under-perform. This is something else requiring a change. Instead, the 80% needs to be spent on the 80% who are stars and role players. These are the individuals who increase the quality of service delivered and strengthen operations. One’s focus must be on developing strengths, not improving weaknesses. Rarely has a weakness ever become a strength.


Development of stars and role players takes many forms;

Supporting and positioning staff to be successful

Using empowerment to wake up staff to what is inside of them

Cross training to discover new skill sets and develop operational redundancy

Encouraging failure and mistakes of commission – We learn and benefit from these. Since none of us works in the “perfect world” environment, what matters is learning how to effectively recover from them.


In the current system employee performance is crippled with the effect of rigid and often outdated job descriptions. Within my own district there are job descriptions more than 30 years old. Many staff spend their work days anesthetized by the rigid limitations of their specific job descriptions – going through their work days much like zombies, performing only the mundane tasks linked to their job descriptions. Breaking through these systemic limitations not only delivers increased operational results, but also frees staff from debilitating limitations placed upon their own abilities to be innovative and productive.


The lack of a profit/loss metric within the support systems component of K12 public education enables those in leadership positions to opt for the easy way out, and to embrace the status quo. A rapidly changing landscape in K12 public education coupled with increased demands on funding is eliminating this as an option.


None of this occurs overnight or without push back. I am not saying it is easy; I am saying it is worthwhile.


“We need a revolution, not an evolution in American public education.” – RiShawn Biddle

Categories: Supporting Educational Support Systems

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