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The ‘business’ of K-12 education


State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Luna, is a businessman. He came to office with business principles and ideals, and today his business – Idaho’s K-12 education – is bleeding cash.

Michael Tomlin

Michael Tomlin

He must now stand before other businessmen, and women in the legislature to argue for funding education. He has staffed and administered the Department of Education very well. He has been innovative and has learned to be patient. But today he is stuck between those in the field and those with the money. Only this year, those with the money don’t even have that.

I, too, am a businessman and believe schools and school districts are businesses. They have physical plants, buildings and grounds, payroll and benefits, computers and supplies, power bills, contracts, invoices, and of course employees. Sounds like a business to me.

All schools don’t have is widgets – they have students. Okay, it is still a business. Their money is appropriated and granted, and they can’t raise their rates. Okay, it is a regulated business. The work at the top is the same. Follow and fight regulations, supply the workers, pay the bills, and make payroll. Keep the investors satisfied by improving metrics of success. Oh yes, and keep the customers happy.

As a labor-intensive business, typically 80 percent of all monies is tied to salaries. So let’s get by with fewer people. Some school districts can do that. Some are large enough to combine and benefit. Small districts, such as in the Treasure Valley’s region like Idaho City, Horseshoe Bend, Garden Valley, Melba, Marsing, etc., have few combine and collapse options available to them.

Where I live in Garden Valley [full disclosure – I have a direct contractual interest with the school district], like in many small districts there is one math teacher, one science teacher, one English teacher, etc., one third grade teacher, and so on. One of each. No combining “departments” there. What is really needed is help in the kitchen, maintenance, etc., yet those are overhead and admin areas, not popular for more funding.

One solution often voiced is consolidation. A good thought and good discussion. But just in the previous example, any discussion of consolidating Boise County districts is made laughable by the geography; the run from Horseshoe Bend to Idaho City for shared services or district meetings is a bit inefficient.

What the consolidators miss is the truly obvious. Consolidate Boise and Meridian, Nampa and Caldwell, Meridian and Kuna, etc. There are districts with the same street numbering and an easy consolidation. But there are size and thus power issues that will keep this from happening.
The truth is though there are some efficiencies and savings that sound business ideas could gain for our schools, if we look at the public K-12 business as an Idaho corporation with 115 mega stores (districts) each with satellites (schools) – first, everyone is already in PERSI, so simply make them all state employees. Cut 115 payroll offices and set a state salary scale and pay from Boise. When I train for the state my check comes from Donna Jones. So it could be for school employees.

As state employees, the state health insurance pool becomes bigger and small districts don’t have to fight to form cooperatives for their employees, wasting administrative time and effort. As state employees, there is no more labor negotiations in small towns that can hurt the community. State pay is state pay. State health insurance is just that. Eliminate the duplicative efforts to gain what is already there.

Eliminate it too in Special Education. Put the whole ball of wax under Health and Welfare and let them service the community’s needs. As it is, rural schools die under the weight of regulation. Contract for required services, hire out Medicaid billing to get part of the money back – it’s a losers’ game and set up that way. And it could be so much easier … read “efficient.”

But those conversations won’t happen. None of them improve math scores. They won’t sell because they are meatloaf, not steak, and no sizzle. They, and others would simply make “faster-better-cheaper” processes in our school districts. And there is the business mistake we will make again in 2010 with K-12 education.

About Michael Tomlin