Having spent two decades working in the private sector before running for our local school board, I was unaccustomed to a school district’s degree of openness. Like most public agencies, ours is essentially an open book—all of our board meetings are held in public (with limited exceptions), all of our contracts are public, vendor bidding is public, all decisions are made public, and all employees’ salaries are public.
That makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? We use tax dollars as our main source of income. We are stewards and trustees of these taxpayer dollars. And we must hold ourselves accountable to the taxpayers for the prudent use of that money. We must be transparent. There are only a few exceptions allowing for secrecy, including areas such as student discipline, employee discipline, and discussions of lawsuits.
For me, transparency took some getting used to, as business interactions are by and large secret. Secrecy allows businesses to shield the “sausage making” process from their stakeholders, make decisions much more quickly, and pick and choose which information to make public or even disclose to their own employees. Through my straddling of both the private-sector and public-sector worlds, I have noticed that most people don’t think through the implications of these fundamental differences on how an organization can be managed. Although these contrasts should not be used as an excuse to defend poorly performing public institutions or public representatives, simply saying “just do it the way business does it” ignores reality. There is a fundamental difference between learning from private organizations and copying them.
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Take, for instance, how we compensate employees. As most people know, most public schools pay teachers on longevity, and potentially their advanced degrees and training. This is what is usually referred to as the “step and column” schedule. This compensation structure ignores what most would think of as the more relevant criteria, such as employee skills, competency, their amount of work and responsibility, and the supply and demand realities of their specific role. Although this is not the only area of criticism of our public schools by parents and other community members, compensation philosophy ranks as one of the highest.
When most people in the education establishment are asked why it’s so difficult to compensate public employees in a differentiated way more akin to private companies, you often hear a number of answers. Some point to union resistance, while others note the difficulty of coming up with meaningful and objective measures of performance not subject to political pressures. While there might be some truth to these arguments, I believe they can be overcome. Those are not the fundamental problems.
So what is, then? I will posit that the problem is indeed our openness. For any of you who work in a private-sector company, let me give you a scenario. You wake up for work tomorrow morning, open the newspaper (or view your company website), and every single employee in your company is listed along with their compensation. Any manager or HR director would tell you that it would render the company dysfunctional almost overnight.