April 12, 2010
Many individuals look at schools and sometimes wonder why so many staff are required to make it work. I often hear that people support teachers but that the rest of the staff are somewhat superfluous to the goal of educating children. In some ways, this is like looking at town government and deciding that, outside of the highway department, the rest of town government could be eliminated with no impact on town services. Having been involved in both schools and local government, I can say without reservation that it takes many talented individuals so make these operations run smoothly. Although somewhat different in scope, it may make sense to compare the two types of governance for an easier understanding of the operations inherent in running a school.
Citizens living in the Gateway School District elect town representatives to the school committee, whose responsibilities are to set a budget and develop underlying operational policies. As superintendent, I function much like a combination of town manager and selectboard as I have the role of overseeing all school operations including managing the adopted budget, supervising personnel, maintaining facilities, implementing policies, ensuring that the district meets all state and federal regulations, planning for the future, providing professional development, setting the calendar and handling the myriad details and decisions that accompany a multimillion dollar operation overseeing nearly 200 employees and facilities worth tens of millions of dollars.
To assist in the management of the operation there are some additional ‘district’ staff (business manager, directors of technology, special education, food services and academics) just at there are additional ‘town’ staff (treasurer, highway superintendent, tax collector, town clerk) that have overall responsibilities for specific district or town functions. The district legally functions as an independent government organization and as such has many of the same legal requirements to meet as do town governments, along with meeting the ever-growing legal requirements related to educating all children to state and federal standards no matter what the background or abilities of the students and in many cases, despite the cost.
At the building level the district has principals who are tasked with the day-to-day operations of their schools and the infinite number of details to make everything run smoothly and effectively. These positions are a combination of the various board chairs (finance, assessors, zoning, library, health, recreation, historical, planning, etc.) as well as the police chief and fire chief who are responsible for the day-to-day town operations and safety. Principals, of course, are also the individuals who directly interact with parents, students and often the state in resolving difficulties and providing student opportunities.
Of course most of these positions also have support staff for managing the daily workflow—secretaries, financial staff, maintenance and custodial staff, cafeteria staff and others who ensure that the daily business of supporting what happens in the classroom happens on a consistent basis. This is not significantly different than in our towns—board clerks or secretaries, assistants to various town officials, the members of various boards and others who take care of the million details that must be completed so that fire trucks, police cruisers and highway equipment run; so that the transfer station has the appropriate resources at the right time; and that the tracking of funds (both income and expense) is done correctly.
All of these individuals, whether at the town or school level, are essential for providing support and services to those who actually work directly with, or provide services to, either townspeople or students. Our teachers and paraprofessionals do an outstanding job of teaching children and that should be their primary focus just as police officers, firefighters, highway department workers, transfer station attendants and others should be able to concentrate on specific tasks rather than the myriad details, regulatory items and financial support necessary for them to do their jobs.
In essence, whether it’s the town or the district, each position is integral to the end-- providing specific services to either townspeople or our children. The days where one person could do multiple jobs is fading quickly, in part due to the ever-increasing complexity of the world, but also due to the steady increase in mandated reporting required for an ever-burgeoning set of regulations and laws. While we may wish for simpler times, or a return to some idyllic notion of education or government, the reality is that both Gateway and our seven towns have done well in keeping our administrative overhead to a minimum. Occasionally this has presented problems for all of our entities (I’m sure everyone can cite examples from past articles in the Country Journal or your own experiences) but overall we’ve successfully met the challenges without adding large numbers of additional support staff—something both the state and federal governments seem to have some trouble accomplishing with the same degree of success.