DAILY INSIGHT: Sustaining employees during unsustainable times

By Rich Valerga, CIO Advisor

In less than 10 months, the Memphis City and Shelby County School districts will merge, creating one of the 20 largest school systems in the country.

A Transition Committee made up of community and education experts has worked steadily for a year to establish a process for the massive conversions about to take place. A new, 23-member Shelby County Board of Education is working diligently to help guide this process, establish practices for the new district, and ensure a smooth transition for the students, parents, and community.

Despite these tremendous efforts, a Superintendent has yet to be chosen for the new district; nearly 15,000 employees are uncertain whether or not they will have a job in 10 months (many of them with more than 25 years invested in their respective districts); and the new district has not been given an official name so we cannot make progress on tasks like establishing new e-mail addresses and merging systems. And these are just a few of the thousands of uncertainties that are the reality of two merging districts.

And we are certainly not alone. Other districts around the country are merging, as are higher education industries like the eight colleges in Georgia merging into four.

Education as an industry faces turbulent times. A Google search of “2012 school district budget cuts” yields 28.5 million hits. Nationwide, 194,000 school jobs were cut between August, 2010 and August, 2011. That’s more than three times the cuts from the previous year alone. A recent survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities examined 46 states where 95% of U.S. elementary and secondary students reside. The study found that 37 of those states have reduced K-12 educational funding since last year, 19 of them by more than 5%.

30 states are funding schools at levels lower than they were in 2008. More than half of those (17) have cut funding by more than 10%, while Arizona, California, Hawaii, and South Carolina saw the deepest spending cuts, slashing educational funding by more than 20 percent since pre-recession.

So how is it possible to maintain a happy and healthy employee base in the face of all of this uncertainty?

The short answer is it’s not. Employees leave for greener, more certain pastures. They fall victim to stress-related illnesses. And they retire early so they can secure their future.

But there are things you can do as a leader to create a sustainable employee base:

1. Invest in your staff: We give every single employee the opportunity to engage in professional development opportunities at top-rated institutions on company time. And we continually offer training that keeps our staff highly motivated.

2. Let employees be part of the solution: Create prizes or incentives based on employee ideas that help the district save revenue over a one-, three-, or five-year basis.

3. Reward them for their hard work: We have a cookout every couple of months and let employees wear jeans on Fridays for a $1 donation to the Employee Recognition Fund. These small things add up.

4. And finally, have some fun at work: We taped a video parody to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” with our Call Center Staff at the beginning of school as a lighthearted way to advertise our extended support hours. It was a huge morale boost and everyone really enjoyed our video. Check it out at http://it.mcsk12.net.Next month I’ll tell you about an idea an employee had that is saving the district $50,000 in paper over the next three years.

Rich Valerga is CIO for Memphis City Schools.