Starting a School: Lessons from a Charter School Veteran

About our contributing author, Steve Zimmerman   

 Co-Director of the NYC Coalition of Community Charter Schools (“C3S”). Steve has founded two charter schools in Queens—Our World Neighborhood Charter School, where he served as board chairman for five years and, most recently, Academy of the City Charter School. He was an elementary school teacher in Chicago and later worked for 15 years in educational publishing. Steve is also the founder an educational technology startup and has spent the last several years working on a digital collaborative tool for authentic assessment. As a serial entrepreneur, technology lover, educator, and founder of two independent Charter Schools, we asked Steve to tell us a little about his experience – what he learned, what he wished he knew, and what he’d like to pass on to other charter school founders.


According to the Small Business Association, there are more than 28 million entrepreneurs serving as the economic engine of our country today. They employ half of the private sector, create two out of three net new jobs, and if our small business sector was a country, its output would rank number three after Germany and Japan.

But when a small business owner decides to grow, to hire employees–that’s when things can get complicated. SCORE estimates that HR work consumes 25-35% of an owner’s time, and 7-25% of time is spent handling employee paperwork alone.

A-call-to-order-2As a serial entrepreneur, I know all about that endless employee paperwork, but I love the challenge of starting companies. My career always centered around education. I started a edu-tech company, a publishing services company and worked on several startups focusing on ESL and bilingual programs, so I’m fairly well seasoned in the inherent headaches that come with the role of a small business owner. I knew that HR and operational work could easily consume all of your time.

But nothing prepared me for the challenges of starting my first independent charter school.

My primary objective was to start a child and family-centric school. But that central desire to create change, was quickly overwhelmed in a sea of administrative entanglements.  Starting a school is huge—it honestly dwarfs what one has to be accountable for when starting a small business. Suddenly you are responsible not only for standard HR functions and employees, but also recruitment, buildings, vendors, equipment, operations — not to mention the education and wellbeing of tiny little people!

The difference between running a small business and starting a charter school is massive. The stakes are higher, and the stakeholders are legion! Board members, community members, parents – you aren’t “just” dealing with the management of an isolated business entity – you are also challenged with governance, adding a whole other, separate layer of responsibility to the task.

Fast forward many years, and I’ve now got two independent charter schools up and running. I’ve learned a lot, to say the least, but the primary thing I learned is that you can’t do it alone. You need to be able to focus on your core competencies, and bring in the right people fast to help you with the operational aspects. This is where finding the right professional employer organization (“PEO”) can be a lifesaver.

THERE IS NO UPSIDE for an INDEPENDENT CHARTER SCHOOL TO TAKE ON HR

PEOs are a great thing for a small business to have—there is just no upside for a school to take on this administrative burden themselves. The paperwork is enormous!  PEOs can make it easier — and greatly simplify your bookkeeping. It’s no longer your problem. It can make your life so much easier, and it’s one of the things I learned really fast as I started my first school.

If you can bring in a PEO, you’ll have people who know what they are doing so you can focus on running your school. There’s so much statutory work already, it’s hard to imagine why one would want to take that on. I think one reason a start-up school might not gravitate to a PEO is that accounting procedures in schools are pretty rigorous, and founders know this. Hesitant to be accused of being unaccountable, CFOs can sometimes hold on too tightly to the role of HR – and when you’re first starting out, many of us make the mistake of thinking we can do it all. We just can’t, and smart operations people get this.  Taking it on is short-term thinking that could create long-term problems.

DON’T MAKE AN HR CHOICE by DEFAULT

When you are starting a school there are hundreds of “to do” things on your list every day, which are often pre-empted by the constant stream of reactive, responsive requests. So when people are choosing how to handle HR, sometimes they take the path of least resistance and just grab whoever calls them first.  Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a good procedural approach to making sound HR decisions for start-up independent charters. Schools historically don’t have a good way of approaching this choice.

A good, seasoned operations person would point you toward a good PEO, but the challenge is, of course, in affording that really experienced operations person in the earliest days of the school.  So sometimes you are really on your own when making a decision. Ideally, one would also seek feedback from teaching staff for how the benefits program should be structured, how it will be used, and what matters. But feedback, too, is sometimes not asked for, and decisions are made without much context or experience.  Decisions made in this kind of environment lead to default cookie-cutter accounting systems that can be laborious and difficult to use and decipher.

 FIND A PEO with K-12 EXPERIENCE

Schools are complicated work places. Far more complex than say, a manufacturing facility. schoolSo I advise the young charter school (or a veteran charter school, for that matter) to find a PEO that understands schools and how the operations of schools can stretch even the most able school administrator. If you work with a PEO focused on K-12—you will get HR support that will help you attract and retain teachers with the best, most appropriate employee benefits and wellness programs.  Moreover, you likely will save a ton of money on those employee benefits – money you can use to put back into your classrooms.  . Plus, with constantly changing employment regulation, it’s hard to keep up and manage through the complexity – and that means persistent headaches.  But a PEO who knows what’s happening in the K-12 arena means they can stay on top of continuous change while you stay on top of building the school of your dreams.

In the end, if I had to give one piece of advice to those entrepreneurial souls ready to take on the challenge of an independent charter school, I’d say surround yourself with a core team you can really trust; a team with vision, and operational experience, and a broad skill set that augments your own. In your earliest days, stay focused on building a school that can grow, and lean on a great HR team for the rest. In my experience working with Little Bird and the committee of Atlanta private schools, I’ve been impressed with their approach to employee benefits and HR services for the charter and private school environment, because I know first hand how critical human capital is to the growth and future of charter school.

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We invite you to learn more about the challenges of HR in Charter Schools. Visit our panel at 11AM on Tuesday, June 28th in The Music City Center, Room 208A.

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