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From A School District's Journey to Excellence: Lessons From Business and Education
by William R. McNeal, Thomas B. Oxholm

One of the most common public criticisms is that school districts are bloated bureaucracies. We are criticized for not spending the public’s money wisely; for giving students too much homework; for not considering family vacation plans when we set the next year’s calendar. Any criticism you have heard, we have heard as well.

It is safe to say that public schools have become so used to criticism that the path often chosen for dealing with critics is to slam the information door in their faces. All too frequently, critics are ignored. This behavior may come from a mistaken belief that even if detractors had all the facts, they would not deal with them forthrightly, but would skew the information to meet their own preconceptions. However, we believe that many of the outspoken critics of public education often have very limited information. If our premise is correct, then we should respond to our detractors by educating them. After all, we’re in the “business” of education! We maintain that all information not of a proprietary or confidential nature needs to be available to the public for scrutiny and readily accessible on the school district’s Web site. Moreover, when more information is required, we gladly supply it. Businesses refer to this as transparency.

This approach requires courage, and if handled improperly, can be costly to a school district. We appreciate that our critics could use some of this information to add fuel to their fire, but it has been our general experience that our critics become more enlightened. We can see this enlightenment develop as the tenor of their argument with us begins to change.

With our budget, we decided that an open-book approach was the right thing to do, even though this would probably mean more work for our staff. We felt strongly that what the school district was doing was right, proper, and defensible, and through making even more information available to the public, citizens with an interest in public education might well come up with ideas to improve what the district was doing. If so, the district would move to implement these ideas. Businesses do this all the time with focus groups. Using small, controlled groups to determine the public’s interest and/or perspective is just good business sense. However, most school districts do not have the financial wherewithal to conduct varied focus groups, so we made our whole community a focus group. Taking such a stance could be heresy to many educators. Imagine, educators listening to non-educators telling us what to do! I’m sure our critics were surprised by our reaction. Instead of slamming the door in their faces, we were inviting them to come in, take a seat at the table, and share their ideas—which we took seriously. From the standpoint of credibility, this stance is critical.

We have seen school districts give voice to this approach, but only on paper. Many school boards have appointed task forces and oversight committees. But the school boards controlled who served and the results. Furthermore, members of these task forces and committees often colluded in this process. By virtue of all the members being friends of or advocates for the school district, there were no fears of what recommendations would be forthcoming. It was a totally controlled environment among friends. Unfortunately, this approach is all too transparent to the serious critics of the school district, and the committees become another target of these critics. Additionally, the media will note who the committee members are and question the credibility of the process. No credibility equals no accountability. These committees may be comfortable for educators, but they do little to silence our critics or—just possibly—to identify a new and innovative approach to addressing the criticisms. Imagine the loss if we miss an opportunity to improve our systems because we didn’t listen well to serious criticism.

Give all the info
Opening our books was the approach school district administrators took with the County Commissioner’s Task Force on Public Spending, which included task force members who we knew were determined critics of our public schools. Subsequently, having had this opportunity to freely inspect the books, the Task Force recommended no cuts in public school spending. Since that time, two Citizen Advisory Committees were formed in the county, and they too conducted in-depth reviews of school district spending (1999–00 on capital spending and 2001–03 on operational spending). The approach taken by Wake County (NC) Public School System was the same—give them what they ask for and do so promptly.

The 1999 Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) came about as a result of the school district’s first and only failed bond issue. Since 1980, Wake County had been going to its taxpayers for hundreds of millions of dollars to construct new schools and renovate old ones, just to keep up with tremendous growth in student population. For a number of reasons, the bond issue was defeated in June 1999 by a two-to-one margin! Our critics came out in force and won the day … or so they thought. Without the bond, we would struggle in the years to come to build the needed new schools and maintain the existing schools. But then, that wasn’t a concern of the critics.

With boards of education in North Carolina unable to levy taxes, the responsibility for providing school buildings and seats for students rests largely with the county commissioners. In the summer of 1999, our commissioners wisely commissioned a CAC task force to analyze what went wrong with the bond issue. The task force agreed on a chairman, a recently retired CPA from a large national firm, and both boards (school and county) jointly appointed a 40-person committee of school supporters and critics. As reported by the news media, this task force had credibility. One year later, that committee submitted its list of 29 recommendations for changes in the way the school system and county provided for and cared for school buildings. All but two of the recommendations were implemented right away. The other two were studied but could not be accomplished without further study and legislative action.

Our community was satisfied that the task force had performed its job well, and in the next year approved the largest bond issue to that point in time. The school district’s willingness to include detractors of the school system in the CAC process, an open-book approach, and commitment to live with the recommendations of the CAC were relatively novel ideas at the time and led the school district to better ways of doing business, as well as increased public confidence in the school system.

Educate the community
One of the constant challenges in public education is to prove that money is being spent wisely so that if more tax dollars are requested, the public will have confidence that the money is truly needed. The public generally understands the great importance of public education with respect to economic development and the future of the community and country. But if they feel that money is being spent wastefully, they will withdraw support for the school system.

We have learned over the years how difficult it is to educate a community when large sums of its money are being spent. In 1998, the Wake Education Partnership (WEP) decided that the public had little understanding of public education spending. The operating budget for 1997–98 was nearly half a billion dollars! It did not matter how many students there were; critics could easily complain about the total tax dollars being spent just due to the size of our school district. WEP decided that a little education would help improve the community’s appreciation of public education.

It is not easy to explain how $500 million is spent to an audience of people who do not have hours to devote to learning the material. On our part and that of WEP, hundreds of hours were spent in developing a 12-page presentation for the public. Five community forums were held to explain the handouts, but less than 300 people attended—in a community of over 600,000 at the time. Finally, a glossy, easy-to-read booklet was printed and distributed through public speaking engagements and in the local newspaper; however, 140,000 copies later most people were still in the dark about the budget. Getting people to learn the details of a half-billion dollar budget was proving to be a challenge.

Consequently, with the cooperation of the school system, beginning in 2000, WEP agreed to sponsor an independent annual audit of the school district’s spending. This was an audit by the community to determine if it felt it was getting a good return on its tax dollar investment. There was a commitment to do this for at least four years, with a goal to improve the district’s credibility and accountability.

Generally speaking, school systems would rather not participate in this kind of event—putting themselves on the line, year after year, to public scrutiny and criticism. But, here too, the school system showed courage. We pledged our commitment of time and information without any control over what would be produced in the report, or what the conclusions would be. The district’s willingness to participate in this joint effort has paid dividends many times over. Because of the involvement of so many people in the process, they have become supporters of the system, with many of them going on to become outspoken leaders in the community.

Due in part to these annual audits, we believe the district’s credibility and accountability are improving. The level of understanding and general acceptance of the fact that a large school district will spend a lot of money and can do it wisely has become more commonplace in the community. While the WEP reports have noted various criticisms and concerns about the school district, in these reports the school district compares very favorably with other systems in North Carolina and well-known ones outside the state. We hope that WEP continues this project as long as there is the need to educate citizens about public education.

Winning the public’s support is not a one-time event; it is continuous and must take place on several levels. Submitting oneself to public scrutiny takes a lot of courage. Along with improving credibility and accountability, through this scrutiny we are realizing an additional benefit. The benefit is an increase in the self-confidence that our administrators and school board members feel. We know that they have received good reports for years, and we have no fear of responding to a request for information. We believe in our school system. In time, this self-confidence infects all school employees. Being confident and proud of who we are and the work we do helps us accept the challenges of this work.

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