Dr. Don Leisey's Speech To University of Southern California School Business Management Program Sacramento Cohort, May 5, 2006
Orange County Cohort, November 17, 2006

It is a real pleasure for me to be able to address you this evening. I would like to talk with you about how the school business management certificate program influenced my career, the book I co-authored about educational entrepreneurship, educational intrapreneurship, and some basic managerial techniques I have found helpful in both the public and private sectors.

School Business Management Certificate

It seems like yesterday that I was taking courses toward a school business management certificate at USC. I treasure the School Business Management Certificate that I received at USC, and consider it the corner stone of my career in both the public and private sectors of education. I was in one of the first groups to receive a School Business Management Certificate from USC. I commend Dean Karen Gallagher for making this valuable program available again for prospective school business officials; Dr. Carol Wilson for organizing and putting the program together; and Dr. Joe Zeronian and Ken Hall for their leadership in implementing the program and making it work. I would also like to acknowledge all the outstanding business officials who are sharing their expertise by teaching in the program.

I know many of you come from long distances and all of you are giving up two weekends a month to participate in this program. You are also paying a hefty amount for tuition. Let me assure you that your sacrifice is an investment and will be rewarded in both opportunities for advancement in school business management and monetarily as you complete the requirements of the program. I am impressed with the number of graduates of the first program who have elevated their positions in school business management. The business division is the "life line" of the school district and the people working in it are the "unsung heroes" of the district. Whether you are in accounting, maintenance and operations, food service, transportation, or any other department, you are playing a major role in the daily operation of the school district. How well the finances and the support programs of the district are managed determines how well the district can achieve its educational goals. Look around the state and you will see that those districts that have managed their funds well are usually very successful districts academically. Conversely, those districts that have not managed their funds well usually do not perform well academically, and frequently have poorly trained and weak business officials.

We need well-trained business managers who will make the tough decisions and are willing to put their jobs on the line. We need business managers who can effectively communicate the fiscal conditions of the district, can ask the tough questions, can say no when funds are not available, and who have the courage to blow the whistle on people who are abusing the system.

You know as well as I that it is not the amount of money spent per student that guarantees opportunities for academic success, but how well the funds are prioritized, allocated and managed that assures those opportunities.

I believe that I was a better superintendent because I had training and experience as a business manager. Many superintendents who get into trouble have limited or no knowledge of the business side of a school district and some superintendents do not even know how to read a budget and how it is developed. This also applies to board members and it behooves superintendents to educate board members in the budget process. Superintendents should be required to have a background in school business management and I believe more districts should be elevating successful business managers to the position of superintendent.

I question where my career would have gone without the School Business Management Certificate Program. From the day I started my career in education, my goal was to become a school superintendent. I thought my path for advancement was via curriculum or personnel, and that was the way I was preparing myself prior to learning about the USC School Business Management Certificate program. Up until that time I had been fortunate to have assignments as a school principal in Pennsylvania, Japan with the Department of Defense Dependent Schools, and in the Lennox Elementary School District in southern California. Shortly after I began the School Business Management Certificate program at USC, the position of assistant superintendent for business opened in the Lennox Elementary School District near the LAX, and my superintendent encouraged me to apply for the position. I was selected for the position at age 30, and completed the course work in the Certificate program while working on a doctorate at USC. I was fortunate to have as my mentor the Superintendent of the Lennox District, Dr. Wes Colby, who served as the business manager for the district prior to becoming superintendent.

After three years in Lennox, members of the USC faculty encouraged me to gain experience as a business manager in a K-12 district. With the help of the USC Placement Office, I was appointed business manager of San Rafael City Schools in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. San Rafael is a common administration district with a single board of education overseeing the San Rafael Elementary School District and San Rafael High School District. At that time the enrollment was approximately 10,000 students.

After a year and a half as business manager of San Rafael, my superintendent resigned to take a position with the Singapore American School. After a nationwide search, the board appointed me superintendent. I believe I was appointed superintendent because of my business management background. San Rafael was projecting a serious decline in its student population due to the birth rate and the high cost of living in Marin County that precluded young families from moving into the area. During my six years as superintendent of the San Rafael City Schools we closed seven elementary schools and a middle school. In 1978, on top of the declining enrollment problem, Proposition 13 was passed by the electorate of California. I guided the district through the additional cutbacks necessary to implement Proposition 13, and then took a long look at where my career was going.

Educational Entrepreneurism

I had just turned 41 years old and was suffering through a "mid-life crisis" wondering what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Although I enjoyed my 20 years in public education, I decided to try my luck in the private sector. After looking at a variety of opportunities in insurance, banking, real estate, sales, etc, I took a job as vice president, northern regional manager, for American Learning Corporation which specialized in publishing educational materials, operating tutorial centers, called The Reading Game, and conducting private summer school programs throughout the state to fill the summer school void created by Proposition 13.

After a year with American Learning Corporation I was invited to move to Orange County to the corporate office which I declined, and established an educational company specializing in private schools. Initially I joined up with a friend, Chuck Lavaroni, who at the time was the Dean of Education at Dominican College, to purchase Kittredge School, a small, grades 1 through 8 private, for-profit school in San Francisco.

The following year, January 1981, we purchased Merryhill Country School, a 200 student, kindergarten through sixth grade, for- profit school in Sacramento. Through the acquisition of adjacent properties to add preschool and middle school, the enrollment grew to 600 students within two years. We knew we were doing something special for children when many of the employees at the state department of education, politicians, and public school teachers and administrators began sending their children to Merryhill Country School.

We began expanding the Merryhill program to other areas in northern California. Merryhill Country Schools' niche was to cater to children of working parents by being open from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm and operating year round. From 9:00 am to 3:30 pm, we offered an outstanding academic program, along with a wide selection of the creative arts. We took the guilt out of working parents by providing programs on campus before and after school in which their children could participate including: tutoring, supervised study halls, ballet and tap dancing, instrumental music lessons, piano lessons, theater, athletic programs including soccer, basketball, baseball and softball, computers, art programs, and all levels of Boy and Girl Scouting.

We did something that is high risk and unheard of in private education. Rather than parents contracting for an entire year in advance, they were only obligated to a month-to-month tuition. We had to do a good job because if we didn't, parents could withdraw their child(ren) thus putting extreme financial pressure on the school and the company.

At the time Merryhill Country Schools were sold to a public NASDAQ company from the East Coast in 1989, we had 22 locations in northern California and I owned 75% of the stock.

Today, in order to keep my hand in education, I own an educational materials company, A+ The Report Card with 5 retail stores in northern California and online sales. In addition I have set up various real estate partnerships that lease properties for educational purposes including private for profit and non-profit schools, a charter school and an educational retail company. I believe the training I received in the School Business Management Certificate program at USC assisted me as an educational entrepreneur and business person in the private sector.

Qualities that I have observed in successful managers in both the public and private sectors are:

*They have a tremendous passion and dedication for their work and are tenacious, optimistic, persistent, willing to take risks, resourceful, independent, opportunistic, and thoughtful.

*They are good communicators. Quoting Dr. Lloyd Nelson, a highly respected Professor I had at USC, "Remember people are down on what they are not up on." Know who needs to know and keep them informed."

*Cause before cure. Make certain you know what caused the problem before you try to solve it.

*Hire winners - Take the necessary time to hire the very best people you can find, nurture them, pay them well and assist them in elevating their careers. Remember that after you leave the organization the programs you have established will probably change, but the people you brought into the organization will most likely outlive the programs. Make sure you treat people well as you are going up the ladder of success because you might need them on the way down the ladder when things get tough. Treat your associates the way you want to be treated.

*Get to the point - Brevity and Levity. Don't over-talk an issue.

*Don't take yourself too seriously - keep a sense of humor.

*Do your homework and always be well prepared and candid in your daily life with employees and others and in presentations before the board, citizen, parent and student groups and when informing the press about issues. If you don't know the answer to a question, don't shoot from the hip or fake it. Inform them that you will research the question and get back to them with an answer.

* Always be loyal to your boss and the organization. If you can't be loyal, get another job! Keep your boss well informed about your activities and any problems or potential problems in the organization of which you are aware. Be a team player!

* Be a good decision maker. Time is your ally in decision making - use it to your advantage. (In most cases you are not expected to make instantaneous decisions.) Make sure the process used in decision making is as important as the decision itself. Know who to involve in the process and ask tough questions of those who should have the information to arrive at the truth.

* Trust your instincts - many times your stomach is smarter than your brain.

* Always be honest, open and approachable. Admit when you are wrong.

A couple of other reminders: Forget your previous job. Nobody wants to know what you did or how you did it.

Set career goals for yourself and carve a path for achieving those goals. Determine what you want to be doing five years from now and set out a plan. Being in this program certainly is a start.

Probably the best advice I can give you is a slogan I have used throughout my career:



I would like to switch gears and discuss the book THE EDUCATIONAL ENTREPRNEUR: Making a Difference, which Chuck Lavaroni, a friend for over 30 years, and I wrote a few years ago. The book has USC ties in that Dr. Gib Hentschke, who was the Dean of Education at the time, wrote the Foreword and features Drs. Barbara and Roger Rossier, for whom the USC School of Education is named.

Chuck and I have had similar careers. Over the years we became business partners in numerous educational and real estate ventures. One day we were having lunch and reviewing our careers, especially our entrepreneurial activities in education. We discussed how we could encourage other educators who had worthwhile ideas for improving education to become entrepreneurs. We decided to establish the International Academy for Educational Entrepreneurship to identify, encourage and support educators in the entrepreneurial process.

As the first step in the process we thought we should identify some successful educational entrepreneurs throughout the country to serve as models for others interested in testing the water of entrepreneurship. We wanted a broad representation of educational entrepreneurs involved in a variety of educational businesses. We define an educational entrepreneur as an educator who has invested time, energy, and capital to create, develop, and market educational programs, products, services and technologies.

Our book includes 22 educational entrepreneurs of for-profit businesses from 18 states. We either knew these people or they were recommended to us by friends. We feature a variety of educational businesses in our book including private schools, tutoring programs, academic and sports camps, educational software development, educational travel, preschool programs, educational publishing, home and charter schooling, educational retail stores and educational consultants. Since we were writing about entrepreneurs, we decided to be entrepreneurial and self-publish the book.

The book includes Barbara and Roger Rossier, both of whom received their doctorates from USC, and were very successful in public education prior to purchasing a small private school in southern California with 40 students who had significant academic, social and emotional delays. Over the years their school's enrollment grew to 200, and became the focus of Rossier Educational Enterprises, Inc. By the time the Rossiers sold the school in 1998, it was one of the largest therapeutic schools of its kind in the country and was noted for its high academic standards and top-flight vocational program.

Their first step into entrepreneurship led to others. Over the years, the Rossiers also established a profitable real estate and leasing business, became involved in educational publishing, and operated an educational travel agency. In addition, the Rossiers committed an impressive amount of time, energy, and financial resources to educational, civic, and philanthropic causes. Their $20 million gift to USC was the largest ever made to a school of education in an American college or university.

Dr. Jan Davidson, a former English teacher and known in the software industry as the "pioneer of educational software," started Davidson and Associates with the $6,000 she and her husband, Bob were saving for their children's education. Early on Jan almost sold her educational software ideas and programs to a publisher, but when she was due to meet with the publisher, he mistakenly went to a restaurant with the same name on the other side of San Clemente. This gave Bob, an executive of an engineering company, the opportunity to encourage Jan to self-publish her software ideas, including the ever popular "Math Blaster." In 1996, the Davidsons sold their share of Davidson and Associates for more than a billion dollars with a "B".

Today Dr. Davidson is dividing her time between philanthropy and assisting new education-related businesses. She and Bob have formed the Davidson Institute for Talent Development to provide individualized educational and developmental programs for profoundly gifted young people.

Kay Fredericks, a Minnesota kindergarten teacher developed life size cutouts for her classroom bulletin boards which were greatly admired by her fellow teachers, especially at "back to school" nights. While in the hospital, recuperating from an auto injury and worried that she might not be able to continue teaching, Kay began planning how she could make money producing her bulletin board ideas. Starting in a friend's garage and withdrawing $700 from the family savings account, her company, Trend Enterprises has more than 200 employees producing more than 1,000 products, sold in more than 40 countries, and generating sales of over $40 million.

Frank Schaffer, needed to get a second job to supplement his teaching salary. He took a part-time instructor's position at Pepperdine University which planted the seed for Frank Schaffer Publications. In 1994, he sold Frank Schaffer Publications for $54 million.

I could go on and on, but time does not allow. Let me summarize the book by stating that all the educational entrepreneurs featured are unique individuals from different age groups, backgrounds and socioeconomic situations. Some of their businesses have been in existence for 25 years and some for as little as 5 years. Many had some false starts and most have watched their businesses transform to meet changing needs. All of the educational entrepreneurs in the book enjoy and appreciate the freedom and autonomy which come from their own initiative. While in all cases, the monetary rewards have been enough to keep the businesses profitable, money has never been the major motivator for any of them.

As we focused on the lives of these educational entrepreneurs, we found two important common threads. First these educational entrepreneurs did not ask, "How can I improve schools?" which makes the question of education too limiting. Instead they asked, "How can I improve education and learning?" which focuses on processes, opens up many new ideas, new possibilities, concepts, applications of human resources, and structures for organizing educational delivery systems.

Second, none of these educational entrepreneurs changed their goals: they merely altered their strategies in achieving those goals. Without exception, these entrepreneurs chose education as their profession, and their goal was to improve the lives of children and society. They did that as educators and they continued to do that as educational entrepreneurs. They still make a difference, but as educational entrepreneurs they are doing it in more innovative ways and for more people.


How does entrepreneurship apply to public education? You have probably heard the terms intrapreneurship and social entrepreneurship. These terms generally apply to using entrepreneurial processes within an organization - usually in public and non-profit structures. Chuck and I are currently developing a model for educational intrapreneurship for use in schools and school districts.

According to Gifford Pinchot, who has written extensively on this subject, "an intelligent organization develops and engages the intelligence, business judgment, and wide system responsibility of all its members. By using the intelligence of every employee, an organization can respond far more effectively to customers, partners, and competitors."

We know there is a large turnover of personnel in education, especially teachers. We believe that encouraging and allowing teachers and other employees to engage in educational intrapreneurship, much needed changes in education can be achieved. Chuck has developed a process which involves the prospective educational intrapreneur to go through a many similar processes as entrepreneurs do in order to get their ideas off the ground and into the marketplace.

We are organizing a process for school employees to follow in submitting programs for approval by boards of education and administrators. The process is similar to a business plan in that it addresses the key questions: where, why, how, when, who, and what. It provides the opportunity for interested individuals to translate their ideas and thoughts into writing, to research their ideas, to develop goals and objectives, determine how much their idea will cost, determine personnel requirements, facility requirements, legal requirements, evaluation plan, a marketing plan for student and parental involvement, and how it will achieve the goals of the school and school district, etc.

In conclusion before I take your questions, I would like to leave you with words from Mary Kay founder of Mary Kay products:

"When you reach an obstacle, turn it into an opportunity. You have a choice. You can overcome and be a winner, or you can allow it to overcome you and become a loser. The choice is yours and yours alone. Refuse to throw in the towel. Go that extra mile! that failures refuse to travel. It is far better to be exhausted than to be rested from failure."

Again, I repeat my motto of life:

Do Good, Work Hard, Have Fun!!!