What’s my Job, Really

Those of us in the business of education usually have no classroom experience.  When first entering into this field we generally defer to the instructional experts and function in support roles.  You want me to crunch the numbers on that proposal? Sure! You need us to report your program expenditures to the state?  Done!

But then, we realize we can do a much better job by really understanding the instructional program.  We see the connections between departments and have a perspective that others don’t (we know all their budgets after all).  We suggest ways to couple together different funding sources to obtain desired outcomes.  We have the luxury of being able to ask “naïve” questions that help program staff better communicate what they do and what their needs are.  We are able to get program people what they need, while avoiding the risks of using restricted funds improperly.  We save butts.  At this level our support role is truly flourishing.

Eventually, though, as parents, as taxpayers, and as people with some acquired expertise in the education field, we want to suggest actual program improvements.  Just like our instructional counterparts, we want to see dollars spent wisely for the best outcomes.  Here’s where we need to tread lightly.  We are saying we want to be treated as your equal partner and that our program suggestions have merit.  For such equality to be accepted, some districts have specifically hired Chief Business Officials who have classroom experience, so their trespass into the instructional realm is accepted.  This is not a bad approach, if the person is otherwise qualified.  But it is not necessary.  The “outsider” or “other” perspective can provide necessary diversity that can lead to better outcomes.

For want of a better description I describe these as Level I, II and III partnerships.  When the instructional side of the house wants the business division to be a level I partner, there is an inequality in the relationship that is so pronounced that it can lead to horrible errors. I have seen this with lower level staff who have done exactly what the program manager asked, even though it was clear that the action was improper or sub-optimal.

Support includes keeping the person and the district out of trouble.  One program manager, lamenting the fact that a now-ended grant was not fully spent, asked that we simply report it as fully spent so we could get all the funding. Short answer: “Um, no”.  That’s a level II partnership.  We don’t want to see this manager (or ourselves) sending money back later and being lambasted in the local newspaper for cheating.  But a better level II partnership would have been to remind the manager that the grant was ending, and before closing the books get them to provide us with eligible expenditures that can be transferred to the grant.  Thus at the level II support level we need to be skilled communicators and keep a finger on everyone’s pulse.  We know school finance inside and out and enough of the instructional program to provide real help and minimize risk.  We know their current programs and we can suggest ways to fund them better, or save money.  We can remind them of statutory requirements they may have overlooked, such as “If you run this program, don’t forget you’ll have to provide students with a meal after x hours of instruction”. Or, “Is this program going to affect school bus schedules?”

A level III partnership is trickier.  I am currently wondering why we spend our Title I dollars on extra support at the elementary level, when we could be using those dollars for preschool programs that have been demonstrated to improve outcomes and reduce special education services.  I have just read The Economics of Investing in Universal Preschool Education in California by Lynn A. Karoly and James H. Bigelow.  There are proven results from providing quality preschool for disadvantaged students.  From a purely financial perspective, money invested in a quality preschool program will more than pay for itself during the student’s K-12 journey. How then can we non-instructional people persuade for a particular course of action?  At worst we can be viewed as having an agenda that is working against current district priorities.  At best we can provide the full financial picture as we work together to explore evidence based practices that are better for kids.  That kind of partnership takes real talent.  It requires relationship building, communication, and a small ego.  I believe that’s our real job – the one that is not actually in the job description.

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