The key to doing more with less: Collaboration

The move is more than a mere change in facilities; it’s a process that might serve as a model for other education organizations on how to survive during hard economic times.

Learning Leadership column, Nov./Dec. 2011 edition of eSchool News—On Nov. 14, the American Association of School Administrators moved offices from our current location in Arlington, Va., to a building in nearby Alexandria now occupied by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. We have purchased half of the building from NAESP, and the two organizations plan to occupy the space together.

This move is more than a mere change in facilities. It is, in essence, a process being engaged in by the two associations that might well serve as a model for other education organizations on how to survive and thrive during hard economic times.

The economic recession that came upon us three years ago has had a major impact on all businesses, both for-profit and not-for-profit. The Washington, D.C. area, in addition to being the nation’s capital, is also home to more than 2,000 associations representing every conceivable interest. Many of these agencies have fallen upon hard times during the past three years.

One of those organizations is the Educational Research Service (ERS). Dating back to the 1930s, ERS was a part of the National Education Association’s research department. ERS went off on its own in 1973 with support from AASA, NAESP, and other administrative groups. For 38 years, ERS provided school districts and anyone interested in education-related research with valuable information that assisted in what we now refer to as data-driven decision making. Today, ERS is best known for its national survey of salaries and wages for public school employees. I refer to the document regularly when I field calls from reporters with questions regarding superintendent salaries.

Unfortunately, ERS fell prey to both the economy and the “Google” phenomenon. ERS derived most of its revenue from subscriptions purchased by institutions wanting to avail themselves of the reports it issued. As school systems made draconian cuts to their budgets, ERS subscriptions declined precipitously. Other ERS publications and services also were affected by today’s technology and the ability to get instant information on the internet. In an interview published in Education Week’s blog “Inside School Research,” ERS Chief Executive Officer John Draper is quoted as saying: “The whole information management system has changed. If you want to know something now, you go to Google and type it in; you don’t wait to see if a report is coming out next month.”

Over the years, we have seen how technology has affected companies that were not able to reinvent themselves. The print media have been hit particularly hard, and we have seen how many newspapers have gone out of business as advertising flees the printed page in favor of the electronic one. Sadly, ERS will be closing its doors this month after almost 40 years of operation. As chairman of the ERS board of directors, it has been my unpleasant duty to oversee, along with my colleagues on the board and Draper, the demise of this venerable organization.

Gail Connelly, the executive director of NAESP, also sits on the ERS board. About a year and a half ago, when the reality of what was happening to ERS began to dawn on us, the concept of functional consolidation began to take shape. I had taken over the reins at AASA in July 2008 with grand ideas about how I would grow the organization. Those plans came to a screeching halt in November 2008 when the bottom fell out of the economy. The first notable change for us was the immediate reduction in the numbers of people registering for our annual conference, followed by an increase in the numbers asking to cancel the registrations they’d already submitted. Over the course of the following year, we also began to see a gradual drop in membership. By January 2009, it was clear that we would be ending the fiscal year with a deficit and action would have to be taken to reduce our operating costs. With the largest area of expenditure being personnel costs, we had no choice but to make a 30-percent reduction in staff.

With the steady deterioration of the economy, it became apparent that the traditional sources of revenue (conferences, membership dues, and sponsorships) would continue to dip. To maintain a balanced budget, the options were to continue to cut staff or look to grow other sources of revenue. A membership organization like AASA must continue to provide its members with the services they expect. Additional staff reductions were not conceivable. Growing additional sources of revenue is doable, but it takes time.

We began to engage in discussions with other organizations to explore areas of collaboration that would yield additional revenue, reductions in operating expenses, or—preferably—both. Gail had space in her building that NAESP was looking to sell. With our recent staff reductions, we were leasing more space than we required. The conversations began in earnest, and the functional consolidation concept began to emerge. What if we moved in with NAESP and shared space and possibly staff? We are both member-driven organizations engaged in providing similar services to our members. We are also engaged in similar advocacy roles with regard to public education.

There was never any thought given to a merger. Both Gail and I felt strongly that the governance structure of our organizations had to be maintained, as well as the identity of both groups. However, consolidation of space and staff, where appropriate, would bring about significant savings and greater efficiency. We also began to realize that our advocacy roles, and possibly other areas, would be strengthened by our union as well. The first such venture took place this summer when we combined to hold our legislative advocacy conferences in D.C. During a joint breakfast meeting where we had several members of Congress addressing the audience, the representatives were impressed by the number of administrators filling the room. The increased number of administrators visiting their representatives on Capitol Hill also made an impression.

There are many other potential areas of cooperation that Gail and I are exploring. Both associations are now stronger, financially and functionally. Collaboration is the key, and it’s a lesson that school districts and other education groups can learn from. Both governing bodies readily approved the sale and purchase of the facility and endorsed the functional consolidation concept. We have moved forward in an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. The country’s economic recovery might still be several years away, but AASA and NAESP have weathered the storm and are stronger for it.

Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

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