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Providence Financial












MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:  FEBRUARY 2008 ISSUE

A BUSINESS OR A PASSION?
BY BRENT VAN ALFEN
PROVIDENCE FINANCIAL CO., INC.


Running a charter school is one of the most difficult management challenges I can think of. Not only do charter school managers have all of the problems associated with managing a small business such as personnel issues, financial and cash management issues, a high degree of regulatory oversight, marketing and sales challenges, etc.; but their “production” line is the most precious of all commodities. Children’s futures are at stake while this business monster must be attended to. This is a daunting responsibility. These dual roles are too much for most people to handle alone. It takes a solid management team to run a successful charter school where each of the team members has well-defined roles, and there is a clear line of authority and communication. I have seen management teams that range from very hierarchal to teams that are quite “flat,” collaborative, and democratic.

I have seen some excellent management teams comprised of people with no formal management training but just simple (un) common sense. I have also seen management teams that are long on degrees and very impressed with themselves but leave a lot to be desired in the results department. What are the stakes? Very possibly the performance of charter schools over the next ten years could go a long way toward determining the future of education in America. If the majority of charter schools perform well, the advent of the charter movement could mark a profound change in the future of education toward a market-based, competitive model. If too many charter schools fail either financially or academically, the status quo will prevail. Following are just a few suggestions for more effective charter school management.

Keep learning: There are scores of seminars, conferences, etc. to attend on a continuous basis, but frankly, most of them are not worth the time. They are often self-promoting, ego-massage sessions, or just a poorly disguised sales session. Something can be learned at most of them, but look for those training programs important to you that are recommended by someone who has attended. Visit successful charter schools, and find out what they are doing that may help you. Whatever you do, don’t ever think you know everything about running an excellent school…keep learning!

Clearly define responsibilities: Have there been times when your management team all thought someone else was supposed to do something, and it did not get done? It happens to the best of us, but if it happens very often, you need to better define roles and responsibilities.

Checks and Balances: Especially in the area of finances and accounting, there should be some independent redundancy built into the system to prevent fraud, mismanagement, and embezzlement. I am acquainted with a school that was just about to launch a financing when they found out that a trusted business manager had embezzled a substantial amount of money. Even though they had insurance to reimburse them, the embarrassment, headaches, and loss of confidence were traumatic.

It takes a solid management team to run a successful charter school where each of the team members has well-defined roles.

Limit turnover: A limited amount of turnover among teachers and staff is not bad. Maybe it’s even healthy to get new perspectives and ideas, but this should be limited and controlled as much as possible. One area of turnover that I don’t think gets enough attention is the turnover at the board level. Turnover among members of the board of directors should be limited in order to maintain the continuity of quality and school policies. I am acquainted with a school where the board members serve a two-year term so that the board replaces half its members each year. That creates a whole new board of directors every two years. What then ensues is a zig-zag in policies and actions that may damage the reputation of the school and affect the willingness of some suppliers and businesses to deal with them. A board of directors should be balanced among parents and outside professionals, and the terms should be planned to establish reliability and continuity.

So, are charter schools a business or a passion? Hopefully, they are both to those who run them. I have seen both extremes from the large management companies who are in this industry only for profit to the small, independent schools that are run by local parents and teachers who love the students and build their lives around teaching them. Is one better than the other? I suggest that the answer does not lie at either end of the continuum but somewhere in the middle. To have an excellent charter school, it takes the passion that comes from local involvement and some good business judgment to go along with it. Can that be accomplished and replicated over time and geography? Only time will tell!

For information contact Brent Van Alfen, Providence Financial Co., Inc.
Phone: 801-299-8555 Email: brent@providencefinancialco.com