Binggeli Receives Good Grades on First Annual Report Card
They have been described as “pretty big shoes” that Brian Binggeli, Ed.D stepped into in July of 2009. That is when he took over as Superintendent of Brevard Public Schools (BPS) from the very capable and well respected hands of the retiring, eight-year veteran, Dr. Richard DiPatri. But Binggeli was no rookie, having flourished as a superintendent in Fairfax Country, Virginia one of the most highly regarded school systems in the country.
Nevertheless, being responsible for over 73,000 students and approximately 9,000 employees in over 100 schools and special centers in a county where the northernmost school is 75 miles from the southernmost would be daunting to any Fortune 500 CEO. Adding to this challenge are the four consecutive years of large cuts to the operating fund due to reduced capital millage and declining tax rolls, along with the “elephant in the living room,” which are the legislatively mandated objectives, which have no clear plans for how they are to be funded.
If the ability to solve the “big problems” is what makes a leader, it seems as though Brian Binggeli will have every opportunity. What is more, those inside and outside the school system seem to feel he has risen to the occasion.
Fresh Ideas and New Approaches
School Board members universally agreed that a “fresh set of eyes” and an “outsider’s perspective” were just what the school system needed. Citing that how we define “visionary leadership” when the economy is sluggish is a far cry from how it is defined when it’s robust.
Amy Kneessy, who has served on the Brevard School Board since 2004, certainly thinks so. According to Kneessy, Binggeli had to resolve two challenges right out of the gate. “The County was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a month on our self-funded health insurance program, in which employee contributions hadn’t been raised in eight years. We had the reserves to cover this expense, but that kind of bleeding can’t continue indefinitely. Equally controversial and perhaps more divisive was the need to rezone portions of the county. Nothing can produce a call to arms like changing where children go to school.”
In a move that surprised many, Binggeli literally “walked the district lines,” knocking on doors and talking to the residents who would be affected. Therefore, when public meetings were held, he was able to confidently say, “No, everyone in that neighborhood is not upset about the new district lines. I talked to…” A process that has historically been described as “heated,” instead was regarded as “smooth.”
Brevard School Board member Dr. Barbara Murray commented, “Dr. DiPatri led the school district to excel in many initiatives and earned respect throughout Florida. Dr. Binggeli leads with a greater focus, which allows personnel to concentrate on fewer, albeit more refined, goals and objectives.”
Unique Challenges in Unprecedented Times
Contrary to perception, though similar in many respects, running a public school system is a far cry from a typical business. Factories can simply be closed or relocated during a downturn, new product lines can be developed to increase market share, and different suppliers can be used if the raw materials coming into the plant don’t meet specifications. Such is not the case for schools. From children whose potential may land them in the Mensa Society, to those who have learning, physical and emotional handicaps or whose parents live in a tent, the public school system has to be prepared to accept and educate them all.
Also, though one might expect the large number of layoffs to mean a corresponding reduction in public school enrollment, the current economy has led to a sizeable exodus from the private and parochial schools in the county, back into the public schools, thus filling this gap.
To address the looming budgetary challenges Binggeli didn’t respond with a “cross the board” percentage cut as many expected. Instead, he brought in administrative personnel from around the county, in a collaborative effort that many call “characteristic” and spent months scrutinizing the budget, in a line item fashion, to make efficacious cuts, while endeavoring to preserve vital programs and personnel.
Binggeli himself observed, “Over the last decade, BPS has added nearly 3 million square feet of facilities, (which brings the total to over $1.8 billion in facilities) yet improved work processes have us effectively maintaining those facilities with over 20 percent fewer maintenance employees. In addition, the collective efforts of people in our entire organization to reduce kilowatt hour consumption have allowed us to cut over $1.5 million from this line item in the last two years. Understanding and prioritizing our educational needs allow us to strategically use these dollars to save valuable people and programs that serve our students.”
Though it is unique, Brevard School Board member Andy Ziegler was emphatic, “Most people don’t recognize that the school system is not only a business, it is the largest and most complicated business in the county!” This recognition, that he has to lead a business, is never lost on Binggeli. He points out, “Any organization’s culture and people will determine its success. High performing businesses tend to be learning organizations. People work collaboratively, guided by organizational vision and focus, supported with quality processes and resources, with mutual accountability for results. Successful schools or school districts follow the same blueprint.”
“For example, we have studied the culture and practices of Nucor Steel. The steel production section of their company is about the same size as BPS as it relates to employees and facilities. They are one of the most innovative companies in their industry where, in their words, ‘research and development isn’t a department, it is a way of life.”
Continuing this thought he adds, “Ideas, strategies and solutions are developed at every level of an organization and mechanisms are in place to share them across organizational and geographic boundaries. Employees individually and collectively benefit from improved results. Much of our strategic focus and organizational actions have been aimed at nurturing this type of high-performance culture.”
It is Part Science and Part Art
No one questions the priority Americans put on education; we have some of the finest educational institutions in the world. However, according to those on the inside, our culture doesn’t have the same high regard for educators. The derogatory slur by playwright George Bernard Shaw, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” is a frightfully common perception. As Dr. Barbara Murray reminds us, “President Kennedy said in 1962, ‘We pay those to whom we entrust our children’s minds less than we pay those to whom we entrust our plumbing.”
This attitude is one that Binggeli and the School Board want to change. A lifelong educator and the most recent member of the Board, Dr. Michael Krupp, said, “Teaching is a science and an art and it is only for those that receive the vocational calling with a true spirit to teach, that succeed.” But he adds, “It is our responsibility to provide them with the necessary tools and support so that they can perform to the best of their ability.”
So how do we incentivize the students to learn and the teachers who teach? “Certainly teachers, and indeed all employees, want to be compensated for a job well done,” Binggeli said, adding, “I think there is evidence that our teachers collectively are as skilled and dedicated as anywhere in our state or nation. We want to foster school cultures where they work collaboratively with shared purpose and input into critical school improvement decisions and actions. Our community also needs to join us in showing our teachers that they are valued and appreciated.”
Binggeli then pointed to the research Ronald Ferguson, director of Harvard University’s Achievement Gap Initiative had done, having studied the achievement results of thousands of students in schools across the country. He notes that students who seem to have “beat-the-odds” achievement have two common descriptors for their teachers. The first is “she does things for me that she doesn’t have to do” and the second is “she never lets me give up.”
Over two thousand years ago, Socrates said, “The secret to a successful society is education. If we can just give everybody a good education, then it must follow that the world will get better and better.” It seems as though the Board and the Superintendent of Brevard Public Schools is doing their best to make sure that happens.
Brian T. Binggeli
Superintendent, Brevard Public Schools
Start Date at BPS: July 1, 2009
Family: Wife, Sherri; Daughter, Hailey (13)
Education: Bachelor of Science in Secondary Social Studies Education, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Master of Education in Educational Administration and Supervision, Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia; Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia