In a hurried one-hour presentation Wednesday morning, three local school superintendents provided members of the business community a sense of the complexities in the modern educational system.
Speaking on the general topic of the “business of education,” Mark Cross, Dan Marenda and Steve Wrobleski, superintendents of Peru Elementary, La Salle Elementary and La Salle-Peru High schools, respectively, covered topics ranging from school finances to transforming the educational process, during an Illinois Valley Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development breakfast meeting.
As superintendents, Wrobleski said, the three of them are responsible for operating large organizations often while performing the tasks of a chief executive officer, chief financial officer, human resources director and public relations director.
While they oversee large workforces, Cross said the school districts try to run as efficiently as possible.
“I’m a big believer in not having one more employee than we need,” he said.
Cross went on to say the three school districts have been able to keep their administrative costs, including administrator salaries, at less than 4 percent of the districts’ annual expenditures.
“I would bet most businesses don’t have management costs of (less than) 4 percent,” he said.
Nevertheless, operating the schools when revenue heavily comes from local property taxes can prove difficult, especially for a district where property values are low.
Marenda said that La Salle and Peru elementary districts are similar in student and staff size as well as payroll costs, but La Salle’s taxable property values are about half of Peru’s. That means when state legislators talk about shifting school pension costs to local districts, La Salle residents would likely have a tax rate two times the rate in Peru just to bring in the same amount, he explained.
In an attempt to maximize resources, the districts have been working together to share services and staff members when possible, Wrobleski said. For example, the three districts have joined together to share a bus contract.
Yet schools are about more than being cost-efficient, the real focus is educating children.
Marenda said that despite a common perception that schools are failing to achieve that underlying goal, Illinois schools are actually doing well.
“We are No. 1 among the states for ACT testing for states who test all students,” he said.
Still, the school districts are looking for ways to improve what they do in order to fully develop students and to prepare them for the jobs of the future, which means transforming education from old models, the superintendents said.
A large part of that is using technology that engages students, Marenda
“Technology doesn’t replace teaching, it enhances teaching,” he said.
When asked how local parents and businesses can help schools and students achieve their goals, the superintendents emphasized the importance of those groups staying involved in the educational process.
“We’re not naïve enough to think we can do it all,” Cross said, adding that it’s necessary for community members to address and tackle the non-educational issues in the community that can indirectly impact student performance.
“This is a cooperative endeavor,” he said.
Matthew Baker can be reached at (815) 220-6933, or firstname.lastname@example.org.