Business Needed For GRs Schools

February 28, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Bert Bleke isn’t alone in asking the business community for help, as a grassroots group is making the same call. But the Coalition for Community Involvement wants business people to pursue a different path than Bleke laid out at the Economic Club last week.

In a recent interview with the Business Journal, businessman and coalition co-founder Ed Kettle said it was imperative that business owners, executives and organizations begin to advise GRPS officials on matters relating to management and the delivery system.

Kettle, a former school board member who favors site-based management for the K-12 system, felt the current school leadership should be relieved of those duties so they could concentrate on advancing the system’s curriculum — a system that has steadily lost students to charter, private and suburban public schools.

“They’re not doing anything to gain that market share back. They’re just managing the decline,” said Kettle, a public affairs counsel for the coalition.

“Closing schools will do as much for the Grand Rapids Public Schools as closing stores did for K-mart. It isn’t going to help.”

Kettle thinks there are many business people who see the dilemma facing the schools as he does, and he also believes they share his fear that if the local educational system flops, everything else in the city — including property values and an employee base — will go down for the count, too.

“I’m just concerned. I just don’t see any kind of solid response, and what I think should be a logical response, from the business community,” he said.

Kettle felt business people could teach school administrators how to cull, remove old policies when new ones are adopted. He said school officials layer, add new procedures to existing directives that have contractual issues with unions. Layering leads to bureaucracy for administrators and makes extra work for employees.

“We need somebody to get rid of this madness. There is just no sense to it. So we want the business community to take an independent look at these contracts, policies and procedures and help clean this system up,” said Kettle. “Bureaucracies don’t change themselves.”

In a nutshell, the coalition would prefer that the school system operate more like a franchise business and change the accounting emphasis to costs from the current method based on expenses.

District headquarters would send student funding directly to each school, which would have an elected council responsible for its operations. The schools would return 4 percent of their total funding to headquarters to cover administrative costs, and district officials would manage the curriculum instead of the brick-and-mortar issues.

“We’ve never advocated getting rid of central administration. We’ve just said narrow it to the most narrowest focus possible — that’s education and not operations. Education is what they’re pretty good at,” he said.

“We’re saying let the money follow the child, all of it, to the desktop. Then pay back to the district a few percent, like you would with a charter, and then you buy back from the district those services that you think you actually need to run the building.”

Coalition members also feel that a school’s assets should be opened to the community. By that they mean that a school auditorium could be leased to a theater group for plays or a gym could offer fitness memberships and the school would keep all the proceeds.

“The bottom line is each school is a small business,” said Kettle.

Kettle said he supports the current GRPS administration, but feels they are caught in a web and need help from business people to find their way through the maze.

“I want them to be more vocal. I want them to talk about what the impacts are,” said Kettle of what his group wants from the business community. “I’m not discounting anything that has been done, but I just don’t see it as an organized effort. I don’t think the Chamber of Commerce takes a strong enough role in local politics.

“I’m not saying that they should necessarily influence elections, but they should try to at least extend their thinking to ‘This is our case and this is what we have to do,’” he added. “It’s the management and delivery systems that are killing us and we need better counseling on those.”

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