ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

January 1998


Have Faith In Your Future
Popcorn Discusses Consumer Trends, Effects on Business

Success Comes From Breaking New Ground - Not Plowing The Old

Taking It To The Public
Business Community Works With School Leaders to Turn a District Around

A Marriage Of Convenience
Unions, Management Team Up to Counter Takeover, Redesign Organization

The Baldrige Award: Winning Isn't Everything, Improving Is

Cutting Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face


Caring About Place
by Peter Block

People Powered Organizations
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


Taking It To The Public
Business Community Works With School Leaders to Turn a District Around

In Garden City, Kan., the school district solved familiar problems with a unique solution. The problems were constant school board turnover, dissension and the inability to improve educational standards. And the unique solution? The Garden City Unified School District employed volunteer participation and open communication to successfully turn their district around.

Faced with mounting community dissatisfaction in the local educational system, the school board appointed Dr. Milt Pippenger as Superintendent of schools. Pippenger had a reputation for tackling difficult district problems head on, and he didn't disappoint those who hired him. The new superintendent quickly developed a plan called an "accountability vision," to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the business practices and administrative procedures of the district. Once a method of assessment and means of improvement was in place, Pippenger reasoned, a continual reevaluation program could be utilized to keep the district on the right track.

To gather information on the current status of each school, a focus survey was sent to Garden City's principals. The principals rated the operations, communication and instruction of their schools in terms of performance and commented on what strengths and weaknesses were observed.

"Principals were our primary source of feedback regarding the actual status of the administration on the advent of our research," says co-author of the Garden City study Gary Schlappe, of the CPA firm Lewis, Hooper and Dick, LLC, Garden City, Kan. "Principals really have their fingers on the pulse because of their unique position within the school system." Survey comments suggested a sequence of departments and subjects to be reviewed, including operations, instruction and communications.

Before any work could be done on these three core areas, Pippenger knew he needed the support of the community - and that didn't just include concerned parents. Garden City Schools needed the business community's participation. Once again, Pippenger planned to tackle the issue head on. In a meeting with business community members, Pippenger emphasized that, just like any other consumer relationship, with education what you get is what you pay for. The newcomer argued that the way in which Garden City viewed its educational system must be changed: "This," said Pippenger, "is a consumer relationship."

Business Leaders Bite
Inspired, a group of volunteer business people gathered together to discuss a specific question: How could the district improve the quality of education for its students in light of its problems? A team evolved from the discussion, made up of experienced professionals already known for their community contributions. Each team member lent expertise that could be utilized in some facet of the enormous changes planned. Progress, Pippenger thought happily, was being made. "It was very difficult to find enough people to dedicate the time and energy needed for this project," says Pippenger. "That took a significant chunk of time. Thankfully, we were able to rely on highly skilled volunteers in a number of areas."

The new volunteer team agreed on a common purpose: the Garden City Unified School District must effectively and efficiently prepare graduates for their adult lives. To accomplish that goal, the district needed to apply the principles of open communication and active participation to identify Garden City's problems and begin fixing them.

Laying the Foundation
Pippenger's team finalized the accountability vision, which now included the three focal points recommended by Garden City's principals: operations, instruction and communication. Within the three focus areas of the accountability vision, the volunteers focused first on operations, with instruction and communication to follow.
First, the team analyzed strengths and weaknesses of the business practices and administrative procedures of operations, which is subdivided into the superintendent's office, personnel and finance. The superintendent's office was analyzed by executives from the Iowa Beef Producers, the nations largest beef producing company; personnel was evaluated by Kansas Job Service Center. Volunteers also participated from Kearny County Feeders with finance.

Keeping their first meeting with Pippenger in mind, the volunteer team changed the focus of each area of operations to customer service. "Throughout the entire evaluative process, we wanted to think of our students as customers who buy a service - educational skills they can use to make the most of their lives," says Schlappe.

The team established three objectives: to improve the use of resources by reducing costs and time requirements; to commend the Garden City United School District for all positive aspects of their daily procedures; and to implement a continually self-improving program, whereby departments are reviewed on a regular rotating basis.

Unsure of how to evaluate the operations of Garden City's schools, the volunteer team sought outside resources. One primary resource was the Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C. School District's evaluation program, in which the district made an impressive turnaround. Although the Charlotte-Mecklenberg program did not include operations, it still served as a model for what Pippenger and his team planned to undertake. The Garden City volunteers also reviewed information from the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Program for Education Pilot Criteria, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the American Management Association.

Taking Steps
Pippenger and the volunteer team decided that operations should be evaluated first to provide an example of openness and dedication to change. And of the three areas within operations, the first up for examination was the superintendent's office, followed by personnel and finance. To achieve the long-term goal of continual participation and reevaluation for Garden City, the team reasoned, operations must first align itself with the accountability vision. Operations could then truly serve as a role model for the other areas yet to be evaluated.
With a framework established and a team of volunteers assembled, the review of operations began. The focus area was subdivided into parts: cost accounting, a management audit, a program budget, alternative revenue sources, management information systems, and facilities management. Operations had a specific accountability vision to live by: To provide a system which ensures prudent management of fiscal resources according to stated district priorities. David Hixson and Paul Geiser of Iowa Beef Producers kept that in mind when reviewing the superintendent's office, and also focused on what the team determined to be the fundamentals of an audit. These fundamentals include communicating strengths, concerns and recommendations; maintaining a helpful attitude from the part of the review team; and guiding departmental planning.

Hixson and Geiser reported back to the volunteer team and Pippenger. In concurrence with the accountability vision, the volunteers determined the components of the superintendent's office should include being mission-driven; regularly employing business and education reviewers; maintaining a good knowledge base of large business operations; performing regular departmental reviews focused on cost, personnel and procedures; and maintaining independence from the school district itself.

Volunteer teams reported findings through working with various departments within operations and the accountability vision for operations became more clearly defined. "Establishing a vision-guidelines is extremely significant for Garden City Schools," Pippenger says. "We're a big school district, employing a lot of people in the area. We have to be just as organized, focused and defined as any other big employer." Pippenger's smile fades for a moment, as he reckons with the severity of his task. "More so, in fact, because we're dealing with the potential of young people's lives."

Post Script
When Pippenger talked with us, the school district had addressed the area of operations, and the results of the volunteer group's efforts were very positive. Pippenger glows when he tells the story of his district's revitalization "The truth is," he smiles, "lots of big companies could do an overhaul like this one. But it's hard, and sometimes you have to sacrifice the ego. The amazing thing about Garden City is that our various departments were willing to work together with outside volunteers to improve our schools." The Garden City School District's volunteer team still has two-thirds of the accountability vision to go: instruction and communication. But the team breathes a collective sigh and rests for a moment, realizing that the groundwork has been laid. Volunteers achieved a goal that for years seemed impossible in a district worn down by mismanagement and mistrust: open communication and participation by a community that recognizes a vested interest. The schools of Garden City serve customers. And the customers one day become the servants of their community.

January '98 News for a Change | Email Editor


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