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Administrators move from private sector to public schools

Outsiders bring expertise to K12 administration, but must learn the mission of education

The question of whether prior experience as an educator should be a required qualification for superintendents has been asked for a number of years. The issue comes to the forefront of education reform efforts, particularly in big city school systems, where former corporate CEOs, politicians, or military officers without prior K12 experience have been appointed district CEO or superintendent.

On the one hand, reformers will describe the need for an “outside perspective” to overhaul school systems, while on the other, opponents will claim that the leadership of school districts must stay with experienced educators.

“I’m seeing that trend less and less,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, who began his career as a teacher in New York City and led several districts in New York state before becoming superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the 12th-largest district in the country, from 1997 to 2004.

“If you looked at the 10 biggest school districts in the country 10 years ago, almost all of them were led by non-educators. Today, all of them are instead led by superintendents who are educators,” he says. “The reason is that those situations with non-educator leaders didn’t work out so well.”

But for all the attention focused on the background and experience of superintendents in big cities like New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles who come to the job from a field outside of education, another trend has been quietly emerging over the last decade. An increasing number of professionals without prior K12 education experience are entering school administration in positions besides that of superintendent, such as chief business or finance officer, CIO or CTO, human resources director or another high-level executive title.

This shift away from educators working their way up through the system is changing the dynamics of leadership and creating a management challenge for many superintendents.

Human resources

Katherine Heintzelman was a practicing attorney specializing in labor law for more than seven years before she was hired in August as director of human resources for the 5,600-student Red Lion Area School District in York County, Pa.

“I enjoyed practicing law intellectually, but there was something missing for me,” Heintzelman says. “I saw this position available, and as my law firm had a number of school system clients, I felt qualified for the position. The district also felt that I had a unique skill set to bring to the table—my knowledge of the law and experience anticipating, preventing, and resolving problems, negotiating settlements, and other aspects of a legal career that relate to HR.”

Heintzelman’s status as an outsider without an education background worked in her favor. “I think I offer a completely different perspective in how things are done, and I think that was appealing to the district.” And, Heintzelman says her career path is not unique, but is part of a broader trend for the position.

“I know that an increasing number of lawyers who are interested in something other than a traditional law career are looking at the position of HR director in school districts right now. Their experience in law can be very valuable to a district when it comes to regulatory compliance and other HR issues, and working for a school system can be more fulfilling for a person with those interests.”

But, for all her ability and experience, Heintzelman acknowledges that she has a lot to learn about education.

Someone coming to a district HR position from outside education faces challenges, but so do educators who work their way up to the position, says Michael Redburn, executive director of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators (AASPA). Redburn was a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent for human resources, and superintendent before joining the leadership of AASPA in 2011.

Redburn makes clear that the organization’s mission is to assist school HR professionals with best practices in the field, regardless of their prior background or experience.

“A non-educator will need to understand the culture and goals of a school system. They will also need to understand the process and goals of teacher evaluation, which requires some knowledge of instruction,” says Redburn.

“It’s important to understand how different the process of teacher recruitment is from hiring employees for a company in the private sector,” he says, adding that hiring decisions should be driven by the instructional needs of the district over other considerations, for example. “The success of these individuals as district HR directors hinges on their ability to adapt to this change of mindset.”

From business to business officer

The 2013 membership survey from ASBO found that an increasing number of school business officers are coming from the private sector. Some 41 percent cited “business” as their primary professional background, up from 37 percent in the 2005 survey.

ASBO Executive Director John Musso describes the trend as “very concerning.” “People like me, educators who worked their way up to the business officer or CFO position, are a dying breed,” he says.

Musso spent more than 30 years as an educator, first as a teacher, then principal and deputy superintendent in Colorado before becoming CFO of the District of Columbia Public Schools. He became executive director of ASBO in 2006. “More and more people are coming into this position as a second or third career, with backgrounds in banking, business, or finance,” he adds.

Musso cites various factors driving the trend. These include the 2008 economic meltdown putting many financial professionals out of work and looking for new careers, the long-term culture change of viewing school districts more like businesses, and fewer teachers and principals being willing or interested in pursuing an increasingly embattled, difficult job as a district-level administrator.

“This is an unfortunate trend, because it’s crucial that the business officer understand the instructional component of their work to contribute to the success of the district. If you come from a business or banking background to become a school business officer, you may have the overall finance acumen, but the problem is that school finance is totally different.

“Without an instructional background, you’re only providing about half of the services you could be providing for the school system,”

Musso says. “If you don’t understand staffing patterns, textbook adoption, education reforms, or changes in legislation and how these things impact instruction, it’s very difficult to provide a budget with the tools that are needed in the classroom to help students succeed.”

Musso says a businessperson needs to understand that the core mission of schools is learning, not profit. “Kids aren’t on an assembly line. You may have the best bookkeeping in the state, but clean books don’t necessarily equal student achievement. It’s a huge balancing act to create a budget that provides adequate resources for learning in the classroom.”

Technology leadership

CoSN conducted its first survey of school IT leadership during the 2012-2013 year and found an even split between school CIOs with backgrounds as educators (44 percent) and those from the private sector (45 percent).

“When school systems are looking to hire someone for this position, they most often refer to technical certifications and experience,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN. “And yet, the role of school CIO or CTO has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, from primarily technical responsibilities to primarily strategic leadership, understanding education and working with other administrators at a cabinet level.”

The organization’s “Framework of Essential Skills of the K-12 CTO” ranks knowledge of technology at the same level of importance as knowledge of the education environment and leadership skills.

“It’s a blended position requiring both technology and education expertise, but over the last decade, it was the knowledge of education that we saw the greatest need to revise and expand upon,” he says. “Those coming to the job without an education background needed these additional resources.”

Understanding the field

The trend may mean that more superintendents will be finding themselves managing a team of qualified, professional, and capable leaders who, despite their talent and capabilities, require a lot of training in education.

Professional associations for these administrator positions are evolving in response, providing new resources that more clearly define the skills required for the job, and improve the knowledge of education for those coming from the private sector.

ASBO has just launched a new Certified Administrator of School Finance and Operations (SFO) certification program this year. The new certification is designed to act not only as a professional development resource for business officers looking to improve their skills and boost their resume, but also as a qualification that district administrators may look for when hiring someone who may be new to the education field.

“We felt that creating this certification was one major way we could address the trend of non-educators coming into the position,” says Musso. “The SFO certification test has two main components. The first tests financial and accounting knowledge, so most business people would probably pass. But the second is much tougher, and tests knowledge of instructional concepts as well as the unique nature of school finance.”

To earn and maintain certification, business officers must take a new exam every year. “We want this certification to be meaningful, we want it to be significant when someone has ‘SFO’ next to their name,” says Musso.

Similarly, CoSN is addressing the need for professional development to help K12 technology leaders better understand their role in a school system, in part to benefit those from the private sector who are unfamiliar with the field of education. “We have spent the last 18 months designing and launching a national school CTO certification,” says Krueger. “The certification is not technical, but is more about aspirational leadership skills, which reflects the blended role of CTO as both technology and education leader.”

Built on its “Framework of Essential Skills” CoSN’s new Certified Education Technology Leader (CETL) exam tests knowledge of the educational environment, how technology enhances education, and how technology leaders play a role in a district’s long-term strategic and operational goals.

CoSN also offers a sample job description for the position of district CTO, and questions to ask candidates during the job interview that explore their knowledge of education and strategic leadership capability, in addition to technical expertise.

Krueger says it’s important that applicants from the private sector understand the role that the CTO plays in district leadership. “The purpose of these resources is to help district administrators go beyond just looking for technical certifications when hiring a CTO, to emphasize this position being about both technology and education leadership,” says Krueger.

On-the-job training

In addition to such resources, it’s crucial that superintendents ensure that administrators from the private sector understand how their role impacts the mission of the school system. On-the-job training and mentoring can help them adjust to the unique education mindset and culture.

“There have always been people who come to work in education without prior experience in the field,” says Domenech. “When I was a superintendent, I had plenty of people working at the district level without prior education experience. But, they became much more savvy because we made sure they spent a lot of time in schools, working with educators.

Domenech adds that school leaders should welcome private sector people into these positions, but they need to be willing to be trained in the field of education, and willing to adapt.

“That will be key to their success,” Domenech concludes, “and the success of their districts.”

Kurt Eisele-Dyrli is senior writer.