By: Julie Omer, MBA, CPA, CFO, MSBO Board Member, Chief Financial Officer, Owosso Public Schools
Recently, I attended an administration meeting in my district and my superintendent led us through an exercise to demonstrate Inquiry Based Instruction. I know, I know, what does a method of teaching have to do with school business? Well, let’s start from the beginning of the exercise. The facts were presented that a man was lying on the ground dead with a rock beside him. The question: “How did he die?” We were allowed to ask 20 questions to help us solve the mystery but the questions could only be responded to with “yes,” “no” or could be designated as “irrelevant.”
Questions were asked like: “Is there any blood” (no), “Is the rock the size of a boulder” (irrelevant), “Did the rock have anything to do with the man’s death” (yes), “Did the man die from natural causes” (no), “Is the ground the man lying on in a cemetery” (no), etc. Long and short of it, there were no bad questions but there were better questions than others that led to the answer. Here was the key question that assisted in coming up with the answer: “Is the rock a mineral that can be poisonous? (yes)”.
So again, you ask “What does this have to do with my job?” It all has to do with asking more and better questions. Too often, because our roles in the school district typically revolve around rules, regulations, numbers, reports, etc. we may fall under the false impression there is no need to ask questions, the answer is right there in the paperwork, isn’t it? More often than not, the answer is “no.” Although the paperwork, no differently than the “facts” in the case, can provide the basis for the answer, there are typically more questions to ask to come up with the appropriate answer. Note: I didn’t say “right” answer because depending on your district, your culture, there may be variations to the answer.
For example, what is the most common question asked of the business office? Drum roll, please…is there money in the budget for “_____?” (fill in the blank as I’m sure that this happens either to you or you are the one asking the question). This, of course, always occurrs shortly after the budget revision has been adopted by the Board. The inclination would be to say “no” but perhaps a better approach is to start asking questions: “Who have you talked to already about this program to gain approval for it?”, “What students will be served?” “What materials are necessary?” “Do we have other resources already in place that could be leveraged to pull this off?” “When will it occur?” “What staff will be involved in the implementation?” “Will the staff’s time be outside of contractual time?” etc.
The outcome may still be a “no” but at least you have gained a better understanding of the program (or whatever the request may be) to assist in future planning and perhaps the person that you are talking to will feel that they have at least been heard. The benefit that we have, that is different than the illustrative exercise, is that our questions don’t have to be framed to illicit “yes” or “no” responses, we can frame our questions to promote open dialogue to gain a better understanding, continue building relationships and, hopefully, a culture of mutual respect.
Final note: Perhaps you want to know the answer to the exercise? The man was Superman and he died from exposure to the rock (kryptonite). And in case you are wondering, yes, Superman CAN die from kryptonite, someone from our team Googled it! Another way to ask some more questions, though be careful to know the source of your answer!