HPMD Quotes & Sources
A Connecticut School District
School Bond Issue
Smithwood is a prominent Connecticut school district that runs two elementary, one middle, and one high school for about 1800 students K-12 in two relatively affluent, suburban towns. ("Smithwood" is a fictitious name, but represents a real district with whom we have worked.) In addition, they run a Vocational-Agricultural magnet program as an adjunct to the high school which educates an additional 200 students from out of the district. The quality of education is generally perceived as high with test scores averaging well above state average and showing steady improvement over the past few years. The elementary school won the prestigious Blue Ribbon Award last year from the Federal Department of Education. The district has been gradually implementing a Total Quality Management program under the guidance of the Juran Institute for the past four years and takes pride in the work of their problem solving teams, in their customer satisfaction surveys, and in their work toward the Malcolm Baldridge award.
In March 1994, the district introduced a request for an $18.5 million bond issue for expansion and improvements in three of the four schools in the district. Four open public forums were held, but sparsely attended. In May, the bond issue was defeated, with very low voter turnout. In October 1994, the district reintroduced the bond issue after scaling it back to $17.8 million. In January 1995, the bond issue was defeated again, with slightly higher turnout.
The defeat was attributed by the district to a couple dozen highly vocal citizens, several of whom are in elected positions with fiscal responsibility, who are able to sway voters. One of the key points raised was the uncertainty in the Vo-Ag funding which left district taxpayers picking up over $200,000 in costs for out of district students. In November 1995, the district reintroduced the bond issue again, substantially unchanged. The issues which separated the two sides appear unresolved. The next vote is scheduled for January 1996.
We interviewed a cross section of people on both sides of the issue and reviewed the newspaper articles published on the subject. The focus was primarily on how the communication took place in customer service terms. Specifically, did the supplier (the school district) listen carefully to the needs of the customer (the taxpayers) and treat the customer as a respected partner and important source of ideas and insight? This customer orientation is part of the very foundation of TQM and is one measure for how far TQM has been implemented in the district.
We found rational, articulate, knowledgeable people on both the supplier and customer sides who are very supportive of education. They are generally pleased with the quality of education being delivered and with the quality of the majority of the staff. They are also concerned about fiscal responsibility and getting the most value out of the taxpayer dollar. Many are successful business people and feel that their experiences and ideas can make a valuable contribution to the discussion. There were no polemics or radical positions expressed.
Many of the customers, however, feel that they are being given insufficient and inconsistent and possibly misleading information, that their contributions have been dismissed without serious consideration, and that the district has hidden agendas which effectively shut out outside influence. Feelings of trust and partnership are seriously strained. A few examples of incidents cited are appropriate:
- Last year's budget negotiations resulted in the dropping of a new position of Curriculum Coordinator. Midway through the year, the district hired one anyway, with no word of explanation to the public. While it is technically legal to transfer funds from one line item to another and presumably the district found the funds elsewhere, it makes the taxpayers distrustful. The district does not appear to deal in good faith.
- The district discovered a $250,000 savings on an insurance policy which they technically did not have to report to the taxpayers because it was not revenue. They decided to use it to fund the shortfall in covering out of district tuition payments for Vo-Ag. While this may have been technically legal, paying the deficit for out of district students is an extremely volatile and sensitive issue with many taxpayers. When the question was asked, "Should we take this issue to the taxpayers?", the response was reported to have come back, "No, they're not smart enough to understand how to handle it."
- The Smithwood Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance were invited to provide input into the formulation of the school budget, which they did. The boards in the neighboring towns were not invited to see the budget until it had already been passed by the Board of Education. It appears that these boards feel that the Board of Ed is trying to avoid resolution of the key issues and is continuing to hide the real agenda.
- A suggestion was made that some of the students be transferred between districts, to a district which has excess capacity and has been seeking additional students. The response was reported to be a terse statement that with transportation it would cost more money and that the receiving district didn't have enough capacity to make much difference. Customers felt that the suggestion was dismissed out of hand with only token consideration.
These are only a few of the anecdotes we were told. Keep in mind that these are the perceptions which the customers have been left with, not necessarily the intent of the district. Collectively they indicate that the district's commitment to delivering good customer service is not being perceived by several very key customers.
Often our most outspoken opponents are our most valuable assets. Only people who really care about the school system and its objectives will spend the time and energy it takes to become an effective pain in the neck. By listening closely to what they're saying and seriously considering their suggestions, the quality of the product can often be improved because the ideas and insights come from outside the conventional thought patterns. More importantly, the perceived quality improvement can be substantially higher because the customer knows that he/she has been listened to.
The district has an exciting opportunity to extend TQM into the bond issue dialog by concentrating on customer service. For whatever reason, there is a feeling of distrust in both directions and the customer is not willing to accept the district's decisions on major issues without being directly involved in the process.
It may be possible to pass this bond issue without first addressing the concerns of the vocal opposition. With only 15 to 20% of the eligible voters typically showing up on budget day, a small increase can sway the vote either way. Taking that approach, however, is likely to have repercussions:
If there is genuine interest in resolving the ongoing misunderstandings, we can provide a detailed catalog of the issues that were uncovered.
- The possibility for genuine breakthroughs and innovations is forfeit.
- The underlying concerns will not go away, only postponed and escalated.
- The loyal opposition will become even more outspoken and motivated.
- The path toward TQM will be sidetracked and commitment to TQM suspect.
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|Title:||Connecticut School District #14, School Bond Issue|
|Categories:||Customer Service, Case Studies|