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Superman #3: School & Nonprofit Systems – Why Sometimes I Want to Bang My Head Against a Wall

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superman-3-school-nonprofit-systems-why-sometimes-i-want-to-bang-my-head-against-a-wall.jpgIn October and November I kicked off a 3-part flashback ignited by to the film Waiting for Superman (see parts 1 and 2).


The last piece I’d like to share reflects a small group session I was in a few years ago with a retired urban School Superintendent. It was intended as an informational session per se, but pretty much turned into a therapy session for her and a powerful, at times painful, plethora of lessons learned for me to hear. I saved my notes –


She basically got tired of getting beat up and especially having to work with a dysfunctional School Board. Her main words were about the inherent challenges of running a major public school system, including the following items:


1. Relationship with her Board – Because of the patchwork of State educational laws and regulations, she has to go to her Board for approval of SO many things. Those regulations were built up in patchwork fashion over the decades (like lots of laws) based on individual circumstances where an individual code may have made sense, but now collectively is a mess that significantly convolutes her role.


2. Funding – She spent a few seconds on the need for more dollars, but put much more emphasis on HOW the funding works. Most of the money in her $X00 million annual budget has some kind of stipulation(s), restriction(s), designation(s), earmark(s), etc. That happens because of various Initiatives over time, Title 9, legislative bills that do things like give teachers salary raises, but ignore the rest of staff, etc, etc.


3. Accountability – There is very little specific data that people use to run their schools and there is a strong culture that resists real accountability. She also said the school system has almost zero ability to talk about bad news at all.


4. Teacher quality in some areas – Close to 50% of math teachers do not have a math background. She said we need to get to some kind of certification for people that teach X subject.


5. Governance – She contends that elected vs. appointed Boards are not the main problem (e.g. you can have weak people appointed just as much as elected). With whichever approach, the key is getting good people on the Board with the right experience, mix, perspective, etc. She also described how, over the last several years, District office staff grew by over 100 people, which contributed to a $1 million / month deficit. How did the previous leadership let these things happen? How do you get the right kind of people on a school board and make sure they do their job??


Somewhere in the midst of writing down that list of things, it hit me (no rocket science here, folks) how extremely similar / analogous all of these issues are to a non-profit organization and all the systemic issues we see because we work directly with non-profits. I can draw an almost mirror image of every one of those 5 items from the public sector to the non-profit sector:


1. Relationship with the Board – Meddling / micromanaging Board and/or unclear roles between Board and ED. The Board gets involved in things it has little competency on and ignores other things it should be dealing with.


2. Funding – Exactly the same as discussing project-specific or restricted funding vs. operating or unrestricted funding. Just think of the private business analog, i.e. you are running your small business or company division and you have all kinds of restrictions – you can spend certain revenues on X, but not Y, or you don’t have enough money for staff so you have to cut people even though you have a surplus of retained earnings, etc. It’s really kind of borderline insanity


3. Accountability – Ditto. It all derives largely from one fact: There is no one clear outcome like profit, and therefore funders and revenue sources concoct myriad ways of tracking, restricting, etc. so they can tie their funds to something tangible even though it usually has nothing to do with end performance or outcomes. Plus, there are many counter-incentives for funders and non-profits to talk about bad news and mistakes. And when there is something wrong it’s some kind of “scandal.” How can any lessons learned / best practices get deployed?


4. Teach quality – There isn’t as much of a direct analog here, but in both cases, the level of compensation certainly restricts the potential labor market


5. Governance – There are countless non-profit Board examples just like this. For example, a local group, ACT had a $6 million budget, high powered Board, and they went bankrupt (until the previous ED came back and turned things around). How did they let that happen?


– Paul Shoemaker


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